Are Women to Blame for Girls’ Math Anxiety?

January 27, 2010

Sitting next to the first lady at the State of the Union address tonight will be a model student in the sciences and engineering. Li Boynton is a semifinalist in the 2010 Intel Science Talent Search Award, and the White House is hoping “other students will look at what she has done and will be inspired to immerse themselves in science, engineering, and math.”

If you think Li is just a token girl, think again. You might be surprised to know that women now earn at least half of the bachelor’s degrees in biological sciences (60 percent), agricultural sciences (50 percent), and chemistry (50 percent), and their numbers are on the rise in earth and atmospheric sciences (41 percent) according to the National Science Board. Last year three girls (including Li) took the top prizes at the International Science and Engineering Fair.

Despite these gains, the stereotype of science- and math-oriented professions as male domains persists. Girls may encounter these stereotypes as early as elementary school, especially in math. Sometimes the source of the problem is obvious: Girls may lack role models in these fields, or the subjects may not be taught in a way that sparks their interest.

Yesterday a few colleagues of mine at AAUW were circulating recent research out of the University of Chicago indicating that female teachers themselves might also be part of the problem.

“The more anxious teachers were,” said the researchers, “the more likely their female students but not the boys were to agree that ‘boys are good at math and girls are good at reading.’” Given that dubious beginning, it is no wonder that the percentage of women in computer and mathematical sciences is lower today than in the 1970s.

The upcoming AAUW report to be released in March describes research on how stereotypes and the learning environment can influence girls’ performance in math and offers recommendations for change. There are many resources out there for women interested in acting as role models for girls in math and science. Below are a few of my recent favorites:

National Girls Collaborative Project Program Directory
Contact information for more than 1,500 programs representing 3.5 million girls. More than 60 AAUW-led programs are already included. Is yours?

National Lab Day
Volunteer your expertise to this effort from AAUW and more than 200 other organizations.

GEMS and Let’s Read Math
GEMS, an AAUW-led program, shares how to start a club for girls in your area, while Let’s Read Math provides a short online course on using children’s books to teach math skills.

NCWIT’s Gotta Have IT and Techbridge’s Tool Kit for Role Models
All-in-one resource kits for reaching out to girls. The high-quality posters, icebreakers, career information, and other resources included make your outreach fun and engaging.

Do you have a favorite resource? Please share it with us!

Watch the video featuring Li Boynton.

Avatar By:   |   January 27, 2010


  1. Avatar nicolecallahan says:

    Thanks for sharing the success of Be WISE, Paula. Twenty years – WOW! There are so many great AAUW-led programs for girls. I encourage you to list BeWISE in the National Girls Collaborative Project (NGCP) Program Directory @ so others in the state and around the nation can learn more about what you all are doing. There are more than 50 Illinois-based programs for girls in STEM listed there now, including several other AAUW-led programs like Dare to Dream and the Chicago GEMS conference. The new regional NGCP network based at Illinois State University in Normal can help you navigate the FREE resources provided by the NGCP. For more info see

    Nancy, thanks for sharing your story with us. It is so important to show girls that math is a part of everyday life, like you did with your daughter. Research shows that how parents present math and money to their kids really makes a difference in their perception of these subjects. Check out this AAUW-led project that gives middle school girls the tools for financial success @

  2. Avatar Paula Maggio says:

    Be WISE is a mathematics, science and technology camp in Ohio designed to develop interest, excitement and self-confidence in young women who are entering grade 7 or 8 in the fall of 2010.

    The camp began in the summer of 1989 and since then over 2,600 girls have completed the camp program. This summer will be the camp’s 21st year.

    This residential camp, located on the campus of Denison University in Granville, Ohio, will be held June 13 – 18, 2010.
    For more details, visit

  3. Avatar Nancy K. Daugherty says:

    I learned at an early age that I liked math, and it came easy for me. i considered majoring in math as a degree, but I wasn’t sure what career options it would offer. I struggled with language based subjects. I was a top student, yet I was told that my vocabulary needed improvement. In taking the ACT college entrance exam, I scored high in math and much lower in the English area. I earned a bachelor’s degree in home economics a fields that many think is very simple. Far from it. Most of them could not get through the chemistry, organic chemistry, and microbiology courses. The chemistry was the same coursework that the pre-med students studied from the same professor. No one would put them down by calling it “just” anything. Food science is very complex, and it is a science of formulas and combinations of chemicals, nutiritonal analysis that connects with health and medical science.

    At some point I noticed that I was the only female in my family of 7 others who could balance a checkbook. The others simply let their husbands take care of that as if they were incapable. I never wanted anyone else to manage my finances. I taught myself through a club to make my own investments. I also taught consumer science and household management, so these fields of knowledge came quite naturally.

    I was a bit disappointed that my own daughter had the same low level of math ability as her grandmother, aunts, and cousins. When she bounced several checks, I sat her down and told her that if she intended to become a professional woman, then she needed to figure out a way to manage her finances appropriately. I simply point ed out to her that she might not always have a man around to take of that for her. I also mentioned that managing a checkbook was simple addition and subtraction of an elementary level. After that, she took a different interest and sense of responsibility for herself. I helped her to step up to the plate and take charge of something for herself that she would have avoided otherwise. She does free lance work now, so it is essential that she stay on top of her business and continue to update her skills.

    When I studied personalities in management courses in grad school, it became even more apparent that certain personality factors play a large part of these interests and abilities rather than merely gender. Yet, many people still hold on to those old gender theories that were disproven over 40 years ago. Some updated information needs to be taught and brought to the level of common knowledge to override the old myths of gender being the main factor.

    We must still encourage women and girls to study the nontraditional male dominated fields of math and science to remain competitive in the marketplace and job hunting.

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