Girls can do math just fine, thank you

And those who think they can't may hurt more than their feelings

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Last month, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin released a powerful study titled "Exploring Bias in Math Teachers' Perceptions of Students' Ability by Gender and Race/Ethnicity." Utilizing data from the National Center of Education Statistics, researchers focused on math grades and standardized test scores of 15,000 10th-graders from across the country, as well as survey results from their math teachers. The teachers were asked to rate the level of difficulty in their math classes as too easy, appropriate or too difficult.

The study found that, in spite of standardized test scores and class grades to the contrary, high school math teachers consistently overrated the math abilities of white males while consistently underrating the ability of white girls and minority students of both genders. These findings held even after the study's authors accounted for race, whether the students went to a private or public school, income and education level, geographic region and urbanicity of a school.

The teachers in this study were not new teachers: most had 15 years of experience. Ironically, 55 percent of the students were taught by female math teachers.

Citing the work of Charles and Bradley (2002), the authors of the University of Texas study wrote that the idea that girls aren't as good in math as boys likely persists in spite of data to the contrary "because the idea that men and women are different in this regard is considered natural and not discriminatory."

The prevalence of gender bias against girls even among educators raises an alarming concern: the very real effects of "stereotype threat."

Stereotype threat is a well-documented phenomenon in which a stereotyped group (in this case, girls) actually begins to transform its behavior to conform to negative stereotypes. When girls detect that teachers, parents, friends and society in general believe that girls and women aren't good in math or that math is "for boys," then girls unconsciously lower their performance to meet this expectation.

In other words, gender bias about academic ability does more than hurt a girl's feelings; it actually hurts her performance.

Decades of research, conducted both in classrooms and in laboratory settings, document the negative impact of stereotypes and gender bias on the academic performance and academic self confidence of girls. Minority women may encounter a double jeopardy of stereotype threat related to race and gender.

Stereotype threat in math and science may explain why so many fewer women pursue degrees and careers in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math) even as more women graduate from college than men.

Moreover, adult beliefs that girls just aren't as good as boys in STEM subjects may prevent girls from developing the basic confidence and competence that makes degrees and careers in STEM possible. By discouraging girls from excelling in STEM subjects at school we compromise the future of our region and our nation to compete in elite professions like engineering, biotechnology and computer science.

What can be done?

All of us -- educators, parents, employers and mentors -- could start by confronting our own gender biases. Realize that by expecting girls to underperform in math, you may contribute to poor performance. "Girl up" and expect our daughters to excel in and love math, science, robotics, engineering and computing. Model the behavior you expect in your daughters and, if you're female, stop saying, "I'm no good in math." Instead, help your daughters find peer groups where it's safe to be smart. You'll be amazed by their ability to think critically, take risks and solve problems.

Modeling and mentoring likely isn't enough. Due to differences in the sequence and timing of brain development, girls and boys don't necessarily learn things in the same way or at the same time. Differentiated instruction for girls in STEM subjects is worth exploring.

Researchers at Stanford University, the National Association for Single Sex Public Education and the American Association of University Women study stereotype threat and how girls learn. They've found that girls benefit from learning environments that teach that intelligence is not fixed but rather can be developed through practice and risk-taking. They recommend that teachers encourage girls to persist despite obstacles, to embrace challenging subjects and not just the ones that come easiest to them, and to accept criticism as a natural part of the learning process.

At The Ellis School, the all-girls school that I'm privileged to lead, our girls regularly compete and win at the highest levels in math and related STEM fields. Our girls have won international computational math modeling competitions many times. The Girls of Steel robotics team, which includes a dozen Ellis girls, competed and won at 2011 and 2012 regional competitions in Pittsburgh. They won the Innovation in Control awarded in 2012 in Cincinnati and competed for the second year in a row at the international competition in St. Louis. Our faculty will make presentations this summer at a national conference on STEM instruction for girls.

I'm understandably proud of our girls and our faculty, but I offer these examples as evidence that believing girls can't excel in math is simply incorrect. If anything, girls hold themselves to a much higher standard. According to the American Association of University Women, girls believe they have to be better in math and science than boys in order to think of themselves as good in these subjects.

There are dozens of organizations in our region working to support girls and women in STEM. The Girls Math and Science Partnership, Girls of Steel, YWCA TechGYRLS, WQED Multimedia and The Sprout Fund's Spark program -- to name only a few -- have outstanding resources for parents, educators and girls.

Others leading the way include Robert Morris University's Expanding Your Horizons conference, Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center and Propel Schools in partnership with CMU and Sima Products.

Together, as parents, educators and role models, we owe it to our daughters to put gender bias behind us and engage girls fully in STEM subjects at school. When we do, our daughters will rise to our expectations and earn leadership positions in fields like medical and scientific research, information technology, and robotics.


Randie Benedict is head of school at The Ellis School in Shadyside (


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