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.
Photo credit: Eric Wüstenhagen
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