Next Parent Who Says “Math is So Hard!” Gets a Pop in the Mouth

Who is perpetuating this whole girls-can’t-do-math thing? It might be us.
Publish date:
May 3, 2012
math, stem, commercials, sylvan


My son likes to spend his television time tuning out to Cartoon Network. But I’m considering a ban for a while -- not for a particular show (though many do teeter right on the edge of good taste), but for one commercial that gets high rotation just before dinner.

The offensive ad in question shows a young boy sitting at his kitchen table doing some homework. He looks frustrated and calls to his mother for help. His blonde (and perfectly coiffed) mother takes one look at his math book and then runs, in a panic, not just from the room but out of the house all together.

Then a kind-sounding man provides the voiceover: “Math was hard enough when you were in school. And it’s only gotten harder!”

Excuse my French when I say, What. The. Fuck?

I’m no stranger to the whole girls-can’t-do-math thing. At 9, I told my one grandmother I wanted to be a doctor. She told me I would be better off being a nurse -- more nurturing, less science. (Never mind that I’m not really the nurturing type).

I vividly remember the Teen Talk Barbie scandal, where the world came down hard on Mattel for producing a pink-clad fashion doll that said, “Math class is so tough!” I wrote a letter of outrage to Mattel about that doll myself.

And I am still deeply angry at a guy in my college calculus class for offering to do my problem sets in exchange for a date. For the record, “You’re too cute for this stuff,” is not a good come-on for a girl who has been accepted to a university known for its science and engineering programs. Just sayin’.

For the past few decades, we’ve talked about why more girls don’t pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) to death. Some have argued that male brains are better designed for math and science, while girls have a natural biological predisposition for language. Others say there is a subtle yet vicious parental and educational bias against girls -- boys are encouraged to excel in these subjects, while girls are not.

And in response to all of it, I hear, time and time again, from parents, from educators and from scientists what I call the statement of defeat: “Girls just don’t seem to have the same interest in engineering, math and science that boys do.”

A recent study, however, challenges that last notion. The Girl Scout Research Institute decided to ask young girls directly about their feelings concerning STEM. In a new study, Generation STEM: What Girls Say about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, the group found that nearly ¾ of young women are interested in STEM subjects, yet few of them consider these options as a top career choice.

“We were surprised,” says Kamla Modi, Research and Outreach Analyst for the Girl Scout Research Institute. “The majority of girls are interested in STEM and that’s really encouraging considering the fact that so many girls don’t end up in this kind of field. But something seems to happening around middle school where they decide that STEM isn’t something they are as interested in pursuing career-wise.”

What could that be?

Laura Laing, self-professed math nerd and author of "Math For Grown-Ups," an awesome book about the importance of everyday math, says that she sees some of this in her own daughter.

“She’s really good at math. She thinks mathematically, she talks about it and integrates it into her life but she says she hates it,” says Laing. “She says she’s no good at it and never wants to go into a field that involves math or science. There’s an odd disconnect there.”

Both Modi and Laing agree that there could be a few things at work here. First, that old bias we talked about before. Boys may be quicker to answer math questions in class in elementary and middle school -- and teachers, having to teach to No-Child-Left-Behind-esque requirements, may inadvertently discourage girls from participating in math class so they can get through the day’s curricula on time.

Commercials like the one above -- as well as “Allergic to Algebra” T-shirts and other anti-Math propaganda for the tween set doesn’t help matters. In the STEM study, many of the girls mentioned sexual harassment: They feared having to work twice as hard to be taken half as seriously in a STEM career.

But, myself, I worry that we Moms need to take more responsibility for our own role in this mess. I can’t tell you how many times I hear “I hate math,” or “I’m no good at that math stuff,” from my Mommy peers. We need to stop it: because our daughters are listening.

Modi is focused on solutions. And she’d like to see a lot more math outreach to young girls. “We need to show girls that there are women in STEM careers: Here they are, this is what they look like, and this is what they do. We need to show girls that women in STEM careers really love their jobs and are really making a difference,” says Modi.

Laing already does some of this in her Math for Grownups blog: she features a different (and often surprising) career each Monday and highlights the math involved. She also writes about the surprising places that math can appear -- I loved a recent piece on the connection between math and poetry.

But we need to start doing more of this ourselves. Each and every one of us -- as parents, as educators, as just plain old people. Math is the universal language. It is something important to our daily transactional lives, of course. But it is also the language of our bodies, our universe, our inspirations and our imagination. There is no place in our lives that math does not touch.

If we don’t start encouraging fluency in our children, both girl and boy alike -- and refusing to tolerate commercials and merchandise that downplay its importance -- everyone will be the worse for it.

The STEM study has shown that young girls are interested in STEM subjects. Let’s all work to help them keep that interest in grade school and beyond.