Erica Orthmann: "Gender stereotyping -- namely, the notion that math is for boys -- starts as early as second grade."(woodleywonderworks/flickr)

I grew up on the cusp between Generations X and Y, at a time when young girls like me played with pink toys and mimicked motherhood but were also told that we could be anything we wanted. In high school, I was in the top 10 percent of my class. This was a big deal for me, as the first in my lower middle class family with college as an option. As a senior, I took college-level courses in physics, biology and pre-calculus. I struggled more than many of my naturally-talented classmates, but the extra studying paid off, and it never bothered me. What did was being told by a teacher that I was bad at math because I was a girl. I remember standing at the blackboard in front of the class, unable to solve an equation, while my teacher mocked me. This happened often.

…the extra studying paid off, and it never bothered me. What did was being told by a teacher that I was bad at math because I was a girl. .

It was my first run-in with girls’ so-called “math limitation,” and it determined the course of my college and post-grad careers. English and writing teachers encouraged me to pursue a liberal arts degree, winning out over the lone science teacher who believed in my ability to follow the math and science path. Now, I write essays about writing lines of code instead of writing those lines of code myself.

Gender stereotyping in math and science —  namely, the notion that math is for boys — starts as early as second grade. Encouragingly, there is a movement afoot to correct that. Verizon recently collaborated on a cautionary television advertisement with Girls Who Code, an organization that promotes girls’ interest in computer science. The ad shows parents repeatedly telling their daughter that she is pretty, while discouraging her from the traditionally male interests she seems keen to pursue, like fixing things with a power tool and suspending a model solar system from her bedroom ceiling.

In June, Google announced its financial commitment to its Made With Code initiative, which aims to interest girls in science and tech at an early age. Another group, Goldie Blox, seeks to recruit an even younger demographic of female engineers. I applaud the spirit but not the approach of both organizations, which rely on gender stereotyping to hook girls. “You code it. A 3D printer prints it. You flaunt it,” the Made With Code website’s “Code A Bracelet” feature reads. It might as well say, “Check out this bracelet! If you knew how to code, you could make one and be pretty too!”

And while the premium placed on being pretty and popular might never go away, perhaps the math whizzes can get a privileged place in our schools, too.

Wouldn’t it be better to cultivate an affinity for math and science in our girls and leave the pretty in pink message out of it? I believe that we should offer our science-minded girls tech-savvy guidance counselors and career mentors at the middle- and high-school levels so that their interest in and aptitude for these disciplines grow. We need to rid our schools of teachers who dredge up outmoded and offensive notions about what girls can and cannot do and make room for educators who get that girls and math do mix. And while the premium placed on being pretty and popular might never go away, perhaps the math whizzes can get a privileged place in our schools, too.

Girls have always been game to rise to the occasion. Genevieve Bell of Intel Labs and Marissa Mayer of Yahoo are just a few of the women who have ascended the ranks in male-dominated fields. They, like the female innovators and leaders I hope will come after them, are smart, self-assured and capable of facing down some of the toughest scientific and technological challenges of our time. And they don’t need baubles or pink things to prove it.


Tags: Gender

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  • JoAnnCu

    My first degree was Geography (I had never thought about math/science)- my SECOND degree was Engineering. THAT made all the difference in the world to be able to get a GOOD paying and CHALLENGING JOB, and have economic security for myself and my family (I married an engineer too). But I could have been a BETTER engineer, if I had been introduced to STEM as a career choice much earlier, NOT in my 3rd year of college. THESE actions are IMPORTANT.

    In spite of the authors dislike of the Verizon commercial’s pink message – I think it is an EXCELLENT illustration of how the WORDS and ACTIONS of ADULTS frame attitudes, and ambitions, hopes and dreams. After a while, you just stop “touching the flame”. You could also have the SAME kind of commercial for minorities too. If subtle messaging has already told you “you don’t belong” then when the time comes to pursue that path, it isn’t even on your list of OPTIONS.

    HOW MANY great inventions or scientific discoveries have been MISSED because the GREATNESS of the individual has been extinguished before it was EVER allowed to burn?

  • poapvtbi

    I agree with the author’s assertion that many of the initiatives to draw more females into STEM fields are reliant on traditional gender roles. This is unfair to both males and females. Females should be able to freely pursue science, if they choose to do so, and males pursue cooking, if they choose to do so.

    Stereotypes in general force many of us into so many things in life. When I was younger, I was continuously reinforced that because I was a male, I should be good at math and science. So I focused my energy on it. I was also told continuously that it was okay that my writing and reading skills were not up to par, as I was an Asian. I was born and raised with English only. Ultimately it was my fault for not improving my writing, but it certainly did not help when my teachers encouraged complacency.

  • downtown21

    This is all very well said but if we’re serious about encouraging girls in math and science we also need to seriously consider if there’s any validity to what Dr Summers suggested. He never said boys are better than girls at math and science…he proposed the hypothesis that boys and girls merely LEARN DIFFERENTLY and the way schools are teaching these subjects favors the way boys learn, and suggested it should be studied. It’s an important question because if the hypothesis is true, that means that even if we fix the problem of idiotic teachers making comments that discourage girls in these subjects, they’d still be at a disadvantage until we fix the curricula, too. But the media reported it as “Summers says boys are better than girls at math” and everybody screamed and howled “SEXIST!” and the issue never went anywhere.

    Men and women are just as good BUT THEY’RE NOT THE SAME. If we’re not willing to admit that, then we’re not doing out daughters (or our sons!) any favors!

  • Nicole

    How very sad to have any teacher ridicule a student for any reason, but especially to say that girls can’t do math. As a mom with two young girls, I hope that things like that are very rare today and would meet with disciplinary action if reported. But I do worry that the subtle messages are still there, and that maybe teachers and parents alike might worry less if a girl does poorly on a math or science test than a boy, or be less likely to seek out extra help or tutoring. As for using jewelry and pink to hook girls on science or math- why not? My girls love pink and jewelry. I never taught them to, they just do. Sometimes stereotypes exist for a reason, and there’s no reason a princess can’t do math or science. I imagine there are plenty of places you can go to find out how to code and print an awesome race car or rocket- why not a bracelet, too?

    • Indigo

      My girls love pink and jewelry. I never taught them to, they just do. Sometimes stereotypes exist for a reason,
      Maybe you personally never taught them to, but the world in general did. Sometimes stereotypes persist because they’re perpetuated by the culture.
      People often comment on how similar my brother and I are – intelligent, creative, introverted, sarcastic, geeky. We have the same tastes in entertainment, we usually get along with each other’s friends, and even our significant others are fairly alike.
      Yet we pursued different interests. He’s a computer engineer; I’m an English teacher. His major hobby is flying small aircraft; mine is writing and directing independent theatre. My father often says that my brother and I are two sides of the same coin: the same personalities, expressed different ways. You could, of course, just put it down to “men are better at math, women at language” and leave it at that. And lots of siblings of the same sex have very striking differences too. But it seems odd to me that my brother and I could be so much the same in so many ways, but diverge so completely on this one issue – especially when I know that when we had similar exposure to something, we usually had similar reactions to it. For example, we’re both excellent cooks. Unlike many of our peers, our mother insisted that we both needed to learn at least how to make a pot of spaghetti sauce, and we both really took to it. But I’m pretty sure he received more encouragement when it came to math and science, and I *know* I got more in arts and language.

    • bug

      I agree with you. Why not appeal to something that many girls already like (making jewelry, say) as a gateway into tech?

  • Aaron

    I never experienced any of this stereotyping in school or college, heck our top math students were girls, including the valedictorian and salutatorian. That’s not to say that I don’t believe you, I totally do. To me, the dad in the video was just observing good safety, her brother looked older and a power tool isn’t a good idea for either gender so young in my opinion. But speaking of tools, that math teacher seemed to have emotionally scarred you a bit with his disgusting and stupid treatment, and should have been terminated also. I wouldn’t assume that there are a lot of teachers that bad. The schools should have ‘guidance counselors’ for helping the students with future plans, and I hope that the recession hasn’t resulted in cuts to those positions, but probably has. I think it’s great if girls wanna go for math and science paths and careers, and they are good-paying and marketable careers compared to the fine arts, so that’s a bonus. It was quite a few years ago, but to point out another exception, I thought in Top Gun, the sexual chemistry between the pilot Cruise and his PhD astrophysics instructor Kelly McGillis was white hot! Take my breath away and all that, and that was cool because that was like the most macho movie of the decade, so there are still some good guys out there.

  • SettingGirlsUpForMoreFailure

    The more we teach our girls that “programming” in HTML/CSS is actual programming, the more we set these girls up for failure. HTML/CSS = modern graphic design, not modern computer science.

    HTML and CSS don’t really deal with any of the logic and abstraction that one must master to be the kind of programmer that goes on to build applications that do something real. I just don’t understand proliferation of “girls who code” initiatives that don’t teach girls to code at all.

    Can we at least teach our girls Python? Or, hell, even Logo with that turtle that drew graphics taught kids more about programming than YET ANOTHER #$@@!! course about HTML and CSS.

    When you see non-gendered computer science programs for kids, they don’t focus on HTML/CSS. They focus on a fundamental understanding of electronics and computers, logic and problem solving. THOSE are fundamental skills of a computer scientist, not “here’s a cute word and pretty color so stick them together and call yourself a programmer”.

    • Ashley (GWC employee)

      Girls who code doesnt do that :)

  • Nandini Bajpai

    The 25 powerful women engineers in technology is a great list! Role models are so important and there are so few for girls right now. It will change in the next few generations, I hope. I remember looking at the Mathematica display in the Museum of Science in Boston and feeling outraged that the one woman that had her name on it (as the title of a book) wasn’t even noted as such. Blogged about it here: