BPW Foundation's Women Misbehavin' Blog

Well behaved women never make history

Overcoming the Math Barrier

Posted by egehl on March 31, 2010

While growing up I struggled with math.  I remember when my 7th grade math teacher would ask each student to individually come up to get their graded test. I dreaded that journey to the front of the classroom because she would either look at you glowingly or sternly depending on the grade you received.  And that year, I got a lot of stern looks. 

Math always felt like something I “had” to do and never once did it cross my mind that I would ever use my math skills in any significant way beyond school.  Granted I was never going to be a math rock star however I also never received encouragement to think of math as anything beyond just a prerequisite.  And many women feel the same way.
When I think of my many female friends I only know two who work in the science, technology engineering or math (STEM) fields.  And this example is indicative of women overall.  Even though women have made such great strides in the workforce, they continue to be underrepresented in these important areas. 

A recent report by the American Association of University Women found that although women have made gains, stereotypes and cultural biases still impede their success in pursuing a career in STEM.  In “Why So Few?”, the report found ample evidence of persisting cultural bias that inhibits women from following this line of work. 

Specifically, it outlines eight key research findings that point to environmental and social barriers including stereotypes, gender bias and the climate of science and engineering departments that continue to block women’s participation and progress. 

The report acknowledges the differences between male and female brains however none of the research convincingly links those differences to specific skills.  Therefore the claim that men are automatically better at math than women is not necessarily true. 

At the top level of math abilities, where boys are overrepresented, the report found that the gender gap is rapidly shrinking. Among mathematically precocious youth — sixth and seventh graders who score more than 700 on the math SAT — 30 years ago boys outnumbered girls 13 to 1, but only about 3 to 1 now.

Even if biological factors play a part in boys outnumbering girls in these fields, it’s not the whole story.  Therefore it’s important to examine cultural factors and look beyond biology to explore the nature and nurture aspects of gender difference in these fields. 

At an early age, boys are encouraged to focus on STEM.  And while women have been given the freedom to go into these careers, they are not pushed into them.  Women will find more encouragement going into “people” fields like social work, education, nursing and law and as a result most will gravitate toward those areas because they feel more comfortable and accepted in these roles. 

In addition if a woman decides to focus on STEM she will face a lot of challenges beyond just the actual work.  She will be reminded daily of being in the minority and will have to face discrimination that comes in different forms.  For example one study of postdoctoral applicants found that women had to publish 3 more papers in prestigious journals, or 20 more in less-known publications, to be judged as productive as male applicants.  Women know they have to outperform men when they choose to go into male-dominated fields so this and other attitudes can pose as impediments for women to pursue this line of work. 

An ongoing question remains how can our society encourage and draw more women into STEM and break through a stereotype that considers this “nontraditional” work for women.  AAUW has outlined recommendations on how to improve girls’ and women’s opportunities in STEM and they include improving teacher training, incorporating these subjects and activities in after-school and summer programs and emphasizing STEM in early education not just highschool. 

It’s clear that if the United States wants to remain competitive in the global economy it must produce students talented in STEM so that we can keep up with future technologies and advances.  This must involve better inclusion of women which will not only grow the workforce, but strengthen it through diversity.   Women have shown they have the capability to achieve success in STEM however they need the support of educators, employers and parents to excel and pursue these fields.


3 Responses to “Overcoming the Math Barrier”

  1. Joyinhome said

    Couldn’t agree more. As a parent to a STEM teenaged daughter, I must be proactive to seek schools that embrace STEM and/or have a dedicated curriculum. These schools tend to “push” the kids, if not equally, close to it. She excels most in Math a field in which women are severely underrepresented. As an African-American girl, she is doubling challenged because African American and Latino students are seldom encouraged to pursue such fields of study.

    Another issue is school funding for these programs. As you mentioned at the close of your post, our nation has to truly value and therefore invest in education if we want to be competitive b/c we are already waaay behind.

    She is beginning high school in the fall so it will be interesting to see how it goes.

  2. […] A recent YWM blog post talked about the dearth of women in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, and the challenges they face, but these astronauts are showing the talent that women do have in STEM and what they can accomplish.  It reinforces why it’s important that parents, educators and mentors encourage women and girls to pursue STEM and to harness their skills for a viable future career.  […]

  3. Qaz said


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