Teaching Feminism: Girls Suffer More From Math Anxiety

Welcome to Teaching Feminism, a series about equality in the classroom. Teaching feminism is about so much more than teaching girls. We need to teach all of our students to respect everyone, no matter what. Teaching feminism talks about just that. Have your own story about these issues? Share it here.

Math anxiety in girls is not a new phenomenon. Back in January 2010, a study came out saying that girls learned math anxiety from their female teachers. While the study was not comprehensive in the least — there was no control group, and only a handful of teachers were included in the study, none of them male — it does show that, unsurprisingly, teachers’ attitudes toward certain subjects are passed on to their students. When young women learn to feel anxious about math, then they grow up to teach it, they can pass on that anxiety to their students, and the cycle continues.

A new study is now showing that, among students that suffer from math anxiety, girls are more likely to see a drop in performance than boys are. From ScienceDaily.com:

Mathematics anxiety is a state of discomfort associated with performing mathematics tasks and is thought to affect a notable proportion of both children and adults, having a negative impact on their mathematics performance. Researchers from Cambridge University, UK, set out to investigate in 433 British secondary school children whether mathematics anxiety has any effect on mathematics performance on boys and girls. The team controlled for test anxiety, a related construct, but which isn’t typically controlled for in mathematics anxiety studies.

The investigators found children with higher mathematics anxiety have a lower mathematics performance, but girls showed higher levels of mathematics anxiety than boys and it was a significant indicator of their performance. The fact that there were no gender differences in maths performance despite higher mathematics anxiety in girls could suggest that girls could have the potential to perform better in mathematics were it not for higher levels of anxiety.

It has already been proven that, around the world, there are very few gender differences when it comes to ability in math. However, it is now clear that, among students who suffer from math anxiety, girls’ performance is affected more.

When it comes to math anxiety, especially for female students, we need to be doing more to counteract it. Math anxiety can have detrimental effects on other related stores, such as science, as well. While the European Commission is trying to get girls interested in science by making it “pink and sexy,” we are still seeing a serious lack of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, and math anxiety might have something to do with it. If girls are being passively taught anxiety towards math, and subsequently see a drop in performance because of it, they will be more likely to go into fields unrelated to STEM, perpetuating the problem.

What can we do? As parents and teachers, we can listen to our students and, instead of imparting our own insecurities, we should listen to their desires and goals and help them find the track that is right for them. We should definitely not push students into one field over another, but rather listen to them and make suggestions along the way.

Related Stories:

The Myth of the “Girl Brain”

Are Math and Science the Only Subjects Worth Studying?

Girls Can Do Math Just Fine, Thanks

Photo Credit: iBjorn


Cathy C.
Cathy C5 years ago

i HAVE had terrible anxiety with math all my life. It sucks.

Luvenia V.
Luvenia V6 years ago

I was failing in my math class in the 7th grade. I got up the courage to talk to the teacher and was honest when I said I did not understand a word he was saying. He answer was one that will stay with me the rest of my life.

He said that if I wanted to learn and could not it was because he was NOT teaching it right. So I along with four others started coming in after school and during lunch and his teaching changed to suit OUR needs. By the end of the six weeks my grades went from "F" to a "C" and then to a "B " by the end of the nest six weeks. In fact all five of us passed his class with at least a C average.

Finland has a school system we SHOULD be copying but that would work so it is NOT going to happen.

Debbie L.
Debbie Lim6 years ago

Thanks. Very interesting.

Jessica L.
Janne O6 years ago

Personally I have anxiety for doing any task while someone is watching me!
I can't say that I suffer from math specific anxiety, though.

Lynda Duke
Lynda Duke6 years ago

I don't know if girls suffer more anxiety in math than boys. I remember in 5th grade (ok, I'm dating myself - 64) that the schools introduced "New Math", that was a total fiasco! Boys and girls all having trouble trying to figure out what the heck it was and how to do it. Obviously, the following year, New Math was not on the curriculum and it disappeared entirely from the entire American school system. I'm not afraid of math, it all makes sense to me. I learned a bit of Algebra in high school, then turned around and found myself performing problems in trigonometry in the Army. Girls afraid of math - not as far as I can see.

Von C.
Von D6 years ago

I think the greater issue is schools insist on teaching math incorrectly. They try to force children to learn things when they aren't mature enough to understand the concepts yet. They begin to push concepts on children too early in their development. Both girls and boys are made to dislike math early on because of this. The whole system needs to be reworked to make the learning much smoother.

Robert Fitzgerald

According to a recent study, even scientists have problems with math. Science articles in scientific journals that do not rely on mathematical formulas in their texts tend to be read and the research expanded upon by other scientists. Those that do use formulas in their text do not get read very often. My question is, does math anxiety in girls indicate perhaps a greater fear or inability at math, or does it indicate something else, such as a greater understanding that life is far more emotional than mental, more mythic than mathematic?

Research indicates that a woman's brain is more complete than a man's. Her brain has a larger amount of white brain cells that connect the two halves of the brain together allowing her to think from a more complete left/right balance. While women can be just as accomplished at mathematics as men, perhaps they see far more to life with their artistic right brain input into left brain abstract math to really be interested in math all by itself.

I also wonder, maybe feminism should be about women and a return to real archetypal feminine power, a topic no one is really talking about, and not about pushing women into the dry abstract world of masculanism.

Gloria H.
Gloria H6 years ago

I was always bad at it. I know so many women who have been bookkeepers,seamstresses and deal with math. It's a talent, a skill and.....an interest. Good for them. My talents lay elsewhere. However, I always felt inferior, despite being able to draw very well. Right brained. The world is left brained.:(

Loretta R.
Loretta R6 years ago

I loved ALL math, and I still live it.

Patricia M. Williams

I'm 70 now. But when I attending an all-female high school in Baltimore I was interested in architecture. So I took math and art majors and went to night technical school for architectural drawing and related math because there were no drafting classes for girls. I've only ever been average in math. But there was no way that I suffered math anxiety. Though, I admit, trig was a lulu and I never got to calculus. Loved geometry.