I failed Algebra in the ninth grade. I failed it again in tenth. It wasn’t until my junior year in high school that I scraped by and passed, satisfying the minimum requirements to graduate. I wasn’t a bad student – it was easy for me to pull As and Bs in English, History, even the dreaded Bio. But I’d gotten it into my head that I was bad at math, and there was absolutely nothing to be done about that.
That’s just how it was: I liked reading, writing, theater. Words. Numbers weren’t a language I was privy to.
Imagine my shock when, two-thirds of the way through college, I took an Economics class and absolutely loved it, breezing by with a solid A. My professor told me I had a “natural propensity for the material.” He invited me to take another class the following semester, which I did even though it didn’t count toward my degree. They were some of the few classes I took all through undergrad that, while still challenging me, gave me a surefire feeling of “I can do this. I like this.”
I still think about that class a lot. Sometimes I wish I’d made the leap and switched my major from Journalism to Econ, even if it would have delayed my graduation a few years. Other times I feel angry that it took me that long to figure out I could be good at something even though it required math.
I’m not the only one.
“I always struggled with math, and my teachers were not exactly encouraging,” Sara Weber, 25, told The Everygirl. Weber grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona and explained that she spent the majority of her life thinking math “just wasn’t her thing.”
“I can’t think of one math teacher who was like ‘I want to foster this.’ I think if I had some more support, if my teachers had been as hard on me as they were with my writing, I would at least be comfortable with it now,” Weber said.
But it’s one thing to choose the arts or a soft science because you’re pursuing your passion. It’s entirely another to grow up subconsciously believing that entire fields of study are out of reach.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with studying non-mathematical fields, of course. I love writing and I’m good at it. But it’s one thing to choose the arts or a soft science because you’re pursuing your passion. It’s entirely another to grow up subconsciously believing that entire fields of study are out of reach.
As I’ve considered why I chose the career path (and college major) I did, I’m struck by the data I find.
Men make up the majority in nine of 10 majors that lead to the country’s highest-paying jobs, which include engineering, statistics, business, and yes, even economics. Meanwhile, women are the majority in six out of 10 majors that lead to the lowest-paying jobs, such as liberal arts, education, communications (my major), and social work.
I refuse to believe that men are inherently better than women in higher-paying fields, but something is leading to this disparity. Something is steering girls away from fields they could love, but never explore because it never occurs to them they can.
Scientific research says it’s happening as early as six years old.
Girls believe brilliance belongs to boys.
“The distribution of women and men across academic disciplines seems to be affected by perceptions of intellectual brilliance,” researchers claim in a 2017 study published in Science.
The study asserts that at age five, children believe boys and girls have equal capacity to be “really, really smart.” But just one year later, at age six, girls in the study lumped more boys into the “smart” category.
We’re not talking about young girls’ abilities to get good grades or study hard. We’re talking about their belief in their own natural intelligence, the giftedness you’re either born with or you’re not. By a wide margin, girls are growing up with the belief that being brilliant is a boy thing.
Certain career fields value innate genius more than others. Lawyers and surgeons are trained, but philosophers and physicists are born. Unsurprisingly, women are painfully underrepresented in fields that put brilliance on a pedestal.
“The more a field valued giftedness, the fewer the female PhDs,” a 2015 study surmised.
Men make up the majority in nine of 10 majors that lead to the country’s highest-paying jobs, which include engineering, statistics, business, and yes, even economics.
That’s why Debbie Sterling, the creator of GoldieBlox, purposefully made sure her title character Goldie was not a genius, but still confident, smart, and capable of accomplishing her goals. GoldieBlox toys (and the supplemental chapter books which launched this month) encourage young girls to develop interests in STEM fields, a product Sterling created after graduating as one of the only female engineers in her program.
“It’s not about being a genius,” Sterling told HelloGiggles. “I want them to learn that part of being an inventor means failing, and failure can lead to the greatest breakthroughs. The fun is in the failing. I look forward to seeing a generation of girls who know it’s fun to tinker and fail.”
We consume these stereotypes everywhere we look.
Think about the media you consume. How many movies or TV shows have you watched that feature a troubled but brilliant man, staring at a chalkboard covered in equations from top to bottom?
What about when you were a kid? Did you grow up watching Dexter’s Laboratory and Jimmy Neutron?
Can you think of any films or shows that feature a woman doing the same?
Acknowledge these stereotypes. Talk about them. Purposefully consume books, movies, and television written for and by women, and recommend the ones you like to all your loved ones. Encourage the young girls and women in your life to consume this media, too. You’ll be surprised at how much it widens your worldview.
How do you talk to the little girls in your life?
I don’t know how to fix a problem as massive and cultural as the way young girls see themselves, but I know it starts with the way we raise our daughters.
Toys like GoldieBlox and countless educational programs for girls are working to combat cultural stereotypes surrounding girls’ interests – but is it enough? What can we do to make sure our daughters believe in their natural abilities just as much as our sons do?
I read a fascinating HuffPo blog post by Linda Bloom about the way we converse with little girls. When we first see a young girl, be she our own daughter or someone we meet in passing, what are the first things we compliment her on? Is it her cute outfit? Her pigtails or braids? Her adorable shoes?
“It’s our culture’s standard talking-to-little-girls icebreaker, isn’t it?” Bloom writes of said compliments. “Teaching girls that their appearance is the first thing you notice tells them that looks are more important than anything.”
Instead, compliment her on her problem-solving abilities, leadership or social skills, her ambition, and of course, her smarts. Ask her about ideas.
“She may be surprised and unsure at first, because few ask her about her mind, but be patient and stick with it. Ask her what she’s reading. What does she like and dislike, and why? There are no wrong answers,” Bloom wrote. “You’re just generating an intelligent conversation that respects her brain… Tell her about your ideas and accomplishments and your favorite books. Model for her what a thinking woman says and does.”
Don’t project your own issues on your kid.
There’s a good chance we were raised fully indoctrinated in these stereotypes, which means we need to be careful our own socialized insecurities don’t reach our children.
“If you were discouraged in math, or think you’re bad at math, please do not tell your daughter,” urged Danica McKellar, who writes and stars in the Netflix original tween series Project Mc2, which sends the message to tween girls that “smart is the new cool.”
“If you don’t feel capable helping with math homework, say, ‘this is different from how we did it. Let’s get some help,’” McKellar said.
This kind of language sends the message that it’s OK not to know everything, but the answers are within reach – all you need is a little research and practice.
I might still go to grad school for economics. That door hasn’t completely shut for me, and there’s still time to explore and learn. But if I’d never taken that class in college, a classic case of “right time, right place, right professor,” I would never have learned about this aspect of myself.
I’d still be using the phrase “I’m so bad at math,” language that influences the women and young girls around me to, potentially, believe the same.