Girls + Math: “Math is for everyone”

In the last installment of our Girls + Math series Chris Confer, coauthor of Small Steps, Big Changes, shares her personal history with math and how she found herself in a “less stressful” math class in seventh grade.

Marissa’s hurt brown eyes looked unhappily at me across the class full of eighth-grade math students.

Surprised, I asked myself, What did I say? I mentally replayed my last comment. A building contractor uses functions as he plans building projects with the same house design.

He. It suddenly hit me. My poorly worded example had completely excluded Marissa—and half of the class. Marissa knew it, and her eyes communicated her dismay. I immediately corrected my pronoun use, noting that both women and men can be contractors. Relief washed vividly over Marissa’s face, and I made a mental note to talk with her later.

Mathematics is my love and my passion. I’ve been a mathematics educator for thirty-five years, and a consultant for more than twenty of those years. I’ve dedicated my life to helping all students find their genius for mathematics, their own passion for math, and their voice to claim their place in classrooms and in life.  So how could I fall into the same trap that I have talked about so many times with groups of teachers?

In “Debunking Myths about Gender and Mathematics Performance,” Jonathan M. Kane and Janet E. Mertz share some answers to my question. Differences in boys’ and girls’ rates of participation in mathematics and the small differences in their levels of performance are most likely due to “a variety of sociocultural factors present in their environment.” Specifically, the authors note that equity in society, employment, and pay correlates to the socioeconomic status of the home. The article states that “well-educated women who earn a good income are better positioned to ensure that their own children’s educational needs are met.”

As I read the authors’ conclusions, I reflected back on my experiences as a child. How did I ever become a mathematics author and consultant? Surely good fortune smiled on me, because the sociocultural factors present in suburban Tucson, Arizona, in the 1960s and 1970s most certainly did not.

I remember my beloved third-grade teacher answering my question about the procedure for adding fractions with, “Don’t ask why, Christy. Just do it.” I was a good little girl. So I stopped trying to make sense of math.

I remember my conscientious sixth-grade teacher worrying about too much stress in junior high, and recommending that Jimmy, who also got all As, take high math and average reading. I, a girl, should take average math and high reading, he decided.

So in seventh grade I found myself in a classroom with students who were practicing their multiplication tables, which I had learned years ago. My schedule didn’t get changed until the spring semester, when I finally joined the high math class. I struggled for the remainder of the year, having missed an entire semester of learning. This one event impacted my choices for the rest of high school and college.

I remember that, as a sophomore in high school, I consciously chose wrong answers on a standardized test, to try to gain the acceptance of my peers who looked down on “those smart kids.”

I know that the world of today has shifted profoundly in many of its assumptions about girls and math. However, the specter of old habits and words—and even beliefs—peers out from the shadows, anxious and ready to hop out at a moment’s notice, eager to recreate yesterday’s culture.  Just as I did, we teachers invite that ghost from the past into the present through our words and misstatements. How often do teachers say that they’re not good at math, unwittingly giving permission for their students—especially the girls—to give up? How often do teachers forget to highlight that success in math is the key to opening doors in college and careers?

Girls need chances to use mathematics in the games that they play, by building with blocks (not just the pink and purple ones), and through mental math (I occasionally invited my daughter to keep the change if she could figure it out before we got to the cashier). Girls need to learn that they are good problem-solvers, that they can justify their thinking, and that math is an exciting, vibrant tool for making sense of the world. Girls need to see mistakes as learning opportunities, and success as a cause for celebration.

I sincerely hope that Marissa stays in the game of mathematics, that she develops confidence born of solid skills. I hope that Marissa can continue to challenge unthinking remarks such as mine—not only with her eyes, but by raising her hand to question them—knowing that she has the solid support of her peers. I pledge to continue to do my part, to remain vigilant, to make sure that “math is for boys” becomes “math is for everyone.”

Add comment May 10th, 2012

Girls + Math: “Where have all the math girls gone?”

Jessica Shumway, author Number Sense Routines continues our Girls + Math series today with a post on helping girls develop their sense of agency as a way to combat gender stereotypes. Share your thoughts in the comments section.

Research studies and news media articles about the gender differences in mathematics achievement are prevalent and still at the forefront of debates regarding education in our society. Most recently, Kane and Mertz’s 2012 article, “Debunking Myths about Gender and Mathematics Performance,” has received a lot of media and social network attention.

As a mathematics educator, I expect and hope to see both genders do well in mathematics, and I strive to help every child reach her or his potential. Because I believe in every child’s ability to learn mathematics, what concerns me is that schools continue to report girls’ low enrollment numbers in elective math and science classes. More often than not, high school teachers indicate that their advanced math, engineering, and elective physics classes are disproportionately populated with boys.

Where have all the math girls gone?

What is it about these classes that are attracting more boys than girls? What are girls choosing to take instead of math and science classes? As an elementary mathematics teacher and coach, I have observed female students not only enjoying mathematics and science but also demonstrating aptitudes parallel to the male students and developing deep (and, I hope, lasting) interest in math and science. Yet the statistics predict that these girls who are interested in math and science are likely to be underrepresented in such elective and/or advanced courses at the secondary level. Why aren’t they signing up?

I wonder if the stereotypes about girls not being good at math affect female students more than we realize. If this conjecture is correct, by the time these females reach high school, no matter how much they might have loved math in elementary school, they opt not to participate in math and science classes beyond the requirements. Krendl et al. (2008) conducted a study using neuroimaging to see what happens to the brain when a person is confronted with a stereotype. They found that women who were told that “research has shown gender differences in math ability and performance” (reminding women of gender stereotypes in math ability) underperformed on the math problems they were given. The neuroimaging showed that these women’s brains did not show recruitment of the mathematical brain regions and instead showed activity in the region of the brain associated with emotional information, whereas the women in the control group (without the stereotype threat) showed heightened activation in the mathematical brain regions and not in the emotional regions.

Since we know that . . .

* lack of gender equality in American culture is affecting gender differences in math participation (Kane and Mertz 2012),

* many girls are opting not to sign up for higher-level math and science classes, and

* stereotype threat not only produces anxiety toward mathematics but also can affect achievement in mathematics (Krendl et al. 2008),

. . . then I am wondering if developing students’ sense of agency in mathematics could potentially combat some aspects of gender gaps in mathematics and science. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of self-efficacy and developing a sense of agency in learning. I recently revisited one of my favorite books, Peter Johnston’s Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning, and reflected on how we as teachers play a critical role in developing students’ sense of agency. Johnston writes about building agency around successful events and says that, in school, “It is our job to help expand the possible agentive narrative lines available for children to pick up” (2004, 40). I think it is important to talk with girls about the gender stereotypes that they may run across and how these have the potential to impact girls’ own narratives about their math abilities.

Could this development of “agency” be a factor in encouraging more girls to continue to develop their interests in mathematics and science? If developing agency is a critical part of combating gender stereotypes, what are the implications for our teaching? What are the best approaches to developing students’ sense of agency, especially in light of gender stereotypes and inequalities that are still present in society?


Johnston, P. H. 2004. Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Kane, J. M., and J. E. Mertz. 2012. “Debunking Myths about Gender and Mathematics Performance.” Notices of the American Mathematical Society 59(1): 10–21.

Kendl, A. C., J. A. Richeson, W. M. Kelley, and T. F. Heatherton. 2008. “The Negative Consequences of Threat: A Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Investigation of the Neural Mechanisms Underlying Women’s Underperformance in Math.”  Psychological Science 19(2): 168–175.

3 comments May 9th, 2012

Girls + Math: Helping ALL students reach their potential

We kick off our Girls + Math series with a post by Maryann Wickett, coauthor of Beyond the Bubble: How to Use Multiple-Choice Tests to Improve Math Instruction. Maryann shares her thoughts on how teachers can guide ALL students to success in mathematics and in their lives as learners.

I have been working on writing this post for more than a month and have written it many times only to immediately delete it. Each of these attempts has been preceded by hours of thinking about performance by gender during the wee hours of the morning, when it is dark and quiet and no one is awake to interrupt my thoughts. I have come to the conclusion that gender is not really the issue—the issue is bigger. In fact, the issue involves ALL children and how to help each one reach her or his greatest potential.

Do boys outperform girls in mathematics? Research is available to support various opinions on this matter. Although it is important that girls do well in mathematics, it is just as important that ALL students perform to the best of their ability. Gender, intelligence, primary language, socioeconomic level, and so forth should not be factors or challenges to a child’s opportunity to reach her or his potential in mathematics or any other subject area.

What is success in mathematics? I define success as moving forward in the acquisition of knowledge and understanding and the ability to apply it to new learning and problem solving at a speed that allows for deep understanding but doesn’t stagnate the learner. Rather, the learner remains engaged, excited, and interested.

What are the characteristics of successful learners? In my experience as a practicing public elementary school teacher in grades pre-K–6, successful learners do the following:

  • Persist
  • Possess self-confidence
  • Are open to new learning and ideas
  • Work to make sense of situations and their learning
  • Make connections
  • Reflect on solutions to be sure they make sense, and revise when they don’t
  • Ask questions and put forth ideas and hypotheses
  • Listen to others and discuss ideas and solutions
  • Apply what they know to solve new problems
  • Communicate their ideas through speaking and writing
  • Use a variety of tools including paper and pencil, manipulatives, calculators, charts, graphs, computers, etc.
  • Search for and make use of patterns and structure

Although successful students display a common set of learning attributes (as listed), these students come in all varieties: gifted, special education, English only, English language learners, rich, poor, Hispanic, black, white, Native American, Asian, female, and male. Success in my third-grade classroom is not limited to boys or any other particular group.

How then do we create classrooms where all students perform to the best of their ability? There seem to be two key areas where we, as classroom teachers, can make a difference. These areas are: (1) our beliefs about our students and their abilities, along with our role in helping them to achieve success, and (2) the opportunities we provide.

  • Beliefs: It is imperative that we hold high expectations for our students as well as ourselves. When people truly believe they can do something, they will do it. The same is true when it comes to learning mathematics. I believe that all of my third-grade students can understand the concept of multiplication, and it is my job to find ways to make this happen for them. It is also my job to convince them that they are capable of understanding. As students rise to meet my expectation for understanding multiplication, they develop self-confidence, which enhances their belief that they can achieve. When students believe they are capable, know that I believe they are capable, and have experience with success, they will persevere. They will make sense of their learning and apply it to new problems and situations, and in new ways. Asking ALL children to share and discuss ideas, in writing and aloud, values their thinking and further strengthens an “I can” attitude.

There are cultural values that we have to watch out for that can be confusing to students. For example, when adults make lighthearted comments such as, “I was never good in math,” we need to be prepared to respond. Adults usually do not make such comments about their abilities in reading, so why is it okay to make such confessions about math? It conveys the message that it’s acceptable not to do well in math.

  • Opportunities: Because each student is unique, we must provide learning experiences with multiple access points and ways to extend learning. Learning opportunities need to accommodate different learning styles, interests, and skill levels. Students must have opportunities to demonstrate their learning in multiple ways. Opportunity for students to reflect on their learning and revise when appropriate is essential. They need opportunities to make connections and explore ideas. Students need many different opportunities to engage with and explore a single concept. Mistakes are not failures; they are golden opportunities to learn. We should all be expected to learn from our mistakes.

To sum up, not only do we need girls to do well in mathematics, we need ALL students to reach their full potential.

Add comment May 8th, 2012

Debunking Myths about Girls, Boys, and Math

Are boys better at math than girls? If so, why?

The topic has been in the news lately with several studies and blog posts circulating among parents and educators.

Researchers Jonathan Kane and Janet Mertz set out to answer the question in their recently published article, “Debunking Myths about Gender and Mathematics Performance.” Along the way, they devote statistical analysis to a range of theories that have been put forward to explain the greater participation of males in high-end math classes and math-oriented careers, including the following:

  • “The greater male variability hypothesis”—I.e., boys are biologically predisposed to quantitative fields, whereas girls are more comfortable with nurturing ones.
  • “The gap due to inequity hypothesis”—Girls perform worse in math in countries that have a lot of gender inequity.
  • “The Muslim culture hypothesis”—In certain Muslim countries, there is little gender gap in math performance.
  • “The single-gendered classroom hypothesis”—Maybe that’s because boys and girls are taught in separate classrooms in many Muslim countries?

Through their analysis, Kane and Mertz reject all of those theories in favor of what they call “the gender stratified hypothesis”—boys and girls are born with similar potential but end up displaying differences due to a complex mix of sociocultural factors, including the education and income levels of women and their ability to advocate for their children.

The researchers point out that because girls’ math performance is linked to sociocultural factors and not biology, it can improve over time, as it has in the United States during the past several decades (according to Kane and Mertz):

  • Girls have reached parity with boys in math performance in the United States, even in high school, where a large gap existed in the 1970s.
  • In the 1970s, boys scoring higher than 700 on the math portion of the SATs exceeded girls by a ratio of 13:1. In the 1990s, the ratio had dropped to 3:1.
  • The percentage of math PhDs awarded to U.S. citizens who are girls has risen from 3% in the 1960s to 30% in the past decade.

That’s significant progress, but we still have a ways to go. We asked three of our math authors to comment on what we can do to ensure that both girls and boys reach their potential in school and in their careers. Over the next week on this blog we will hear from Chris Confer, coauthor of Small Steps, Big Changes; Jessica Shumway, author of Number Sense Routines; and Maryann Wickett, coauthor of the Beyond the Bubble series.

What is your take on the topic? Leave your thoughts in the comments section.

Add comment May 7th, 2012

New From Stenhouse

Most Recent Posts

Stenhouse Author Sites




Classroom Blogs