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Girls Fall Behind In Math When Mom Doesn’t Talk About Numbers

Girls Fall Behind In Math When Mom Doesn’t Talk About Numbers


A 2011 study at the University of Wisconsin showed that boys and girls are wired with exactly the same potential to achieve in math and science. So why do so many girls think they’re bad at math? Why do women make up only 30 percent of math PhD’s and only 5 percent of tenured faculty in mathematics departments across the country?

The answer may be in how parents talk to their young children about numbers. Alicia Chang of the University of Delaware, along with two colleagues, decided to study the different messages boys and girls receive regarding math following Larry Summers’ 2005 declaration that women just aren’t good at math or science. Their results were published in the December 2011 issue of the Journal of Language and Social Psychology.

Both parents, but particularly mothers, were more likely to draw their toddler’s attention to numerical concepts when speaking to a boy. 2-3 times more likely, in fact — fathers used math concepts twice as often with boys, and mothers used them a full three times more often. Chang emphasizes that the period between 18-22 months is a crucial period in child development, and that the concepts and vocabulary introduced at that age have a huge impact on a child’s future interests. Children are more likely to enjoy subjects in which they have a better grasp of the language used.

The really interesting part is that this study was examining college-educated, upper-middle class mothers, and conventional wisdom would tell us they’d be more sensitive to these gender disparities. The study concludes that this behavior is likely unconscious on the part of parents.

The solution? Be aware of how you’re interacting with your very young children. Be sure to help them develop an early confidence with numbers by addressing the world around them – attach numbers to obvious nouns. “Here are five raisins” or “there are two beds in the room.” And go out of your way to make these references, especially with your daughters.


Related Stories:

Girls Can Do Math Just Fine, Thanks

Motherhood “Detrimental” to Women in Math-Intensive Sciences

How To Overcome Math Anxiety


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Photo credit: Eric Wüstenhagen

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4:44PM PDT on Mar 15, 2012

Noted. Thanks for posting.

4:44PM PDT on Mar 15, 2012

Noted. Thanks for posting.

4:44PM PDT on Mar 15, 2012

Noted. Thanks for posting.

4:44PM PDT on Mar 15, 2012

Noted. Thanks for posting.

4:43PM PDT on Mar 15, 2012

Noted. Thanks for posting.

4:43PM PDT on Mar 15, 2012

Noted. Thanks for posting.

4:43PM PDT on Mar 15, 2012

Noted. Thanks for posting.

4:42PM PDT on Mar 15, 2012

Noted. Thanks for posting.

7:22AM PDT on Mar 15, 2012

I never enjoyed math, in fact I had to work really hard to "get" it. I am seeing a lack of basic math skills in my seven year old daughter. My hubby claims to not be "good" at math either, so I guess neither of us pushed numbers at her when she was little. I needed a tutor for grade five math fractions) and things improved somewhat from there. We are going to actively work on our daughter's enjoyment of and skills in math. In the meantime is anyone looking at why nearly all the nurses, sales clerks and speech therapists are women? Do we really all have to be equally good at everything?

7:59PM PDT on Mar 14, 2012

The One point that I made sure my son understood about being a parent is that children are ALWAYS learning. They watch EVERYTHING their parents do and develop their interests from the things they are exposed to. As mentioned in the article, childhood development for things like language and math (which are both the same thing) happen to greatest effect between the ages of 18 to 22 months. Few children are taught in school at that age, so teachers have a very limited role. It is up to parents to be aware of just how much their actions impact their children, which I think was the point of the article. And parents must be aware that even something that you do every day, such as fixing breakfast or tying your shoes, is a learning experience for your young children. This is the reason why being a parent is such a demanding job.

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