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Girls and math: It doesn't add up

October 13, 2008 |  2:11 pm

Mamas, you might want to let your babies grow up to be mathematicians, especially if they’re girls.

MathIt seems American students — especially females — may not be encouraged to excel in math, according to a new study, which claims that while many girls do have a knack for mathematics, they could be derailed by a combination of societal pressures, a less than stellar public school system, and a lack of role models. Boys aren’t immune, either. The study, published in this month’s issue of Notices of the American Mathematical Society, paints a dreary picture of low math participation among both sexes as they get older.

Researchers examined years of results from challenging international math competitions to determine the gender and nationality of the participants and came to a number of conclusions. Though girls may be under-represented in math competitions, lots of them do quite well at math. The mathematical talent of American youth isn’t valued and nurtured as much as it is in other countries. American children of immigrants hailing from countries where math talent is appreciated — especially Asia and Eastern Europe — are more likely to be recognized as having exceptional math skills. And starting as early as middle school, cultivating strong math talent begins to go astray.

The reasons are many and complex. According to the study, "it is deemed uncool within the social context of USA middle and high schools to do mathematics for fun; doing so can lead to social ostracism. Consequently, gifted girls, even more so than boys, usually camouflage their mathematical talent to fit in well with their peers." And: "girls perform as well if not better than boys in mathematics throughout elementary school; it is during the middle school years, an age when children begin to feel pressure to conform to peer and societal expectations, that they start to lose interest and fall behind in most, but not all countries."

"We are wasting this valuable resource," said Janet Mertz, senior author and professor of oncology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in a news release. "Girls can excel in math at the very highest level. There are some truly phenomenal women mathematicians out there."

Maybe Mattel could make a Mathematician Barbie. It might erase the memory of that Teen Talk Barbie they came up with years ago that uttered this memorable phrase: "Math class is tough!"

-- Jeannine Stein

Photo credit: Michael Robinson Chavez / L.A. Times