If I asked you to draw a picture of a child who is a good math student, what would the child look like? What if you were asked to draw a picture of a child who is a good reader? First- and second-grade girls who are taught for a year by a female teacher anxious about her own math abilities are more likely to draw a male math student and a female reader, research shows (click here for article). In other words, if the female teacher is anxious about math, girls are more likely to endorse the stereotype that boys are good at math and girls are good at reading. Boys stay pretty unaffected by the whole business.

Why does this matter? Because girls who endorse this boys-are-the-math-students stereotype do significantly worse on their math tests at the end of the year – 6 points worse on average – compared to girls who don’t.

Keep in mind that 90% of elementary school teachers are women, and elementary education majors typically have highest rates of math anxiety of any college major. So the odds that your daughter will have a female teacher who is anxious about her math abilities are pretty high.

This seems to set up a tenacious cycle. Women become elementary school teachers and carry forward their math anxiety from their own childhood. The girls in their class pick up on this anxiety and incorporate it into their own stereotypes and self-concepts. Indeed, another recent study shows that, although they perform the same as boys, girls are less confident in their math abilities than boys. And, by second grade, both boys and girls believe that boys are better at math than girls and girls identify with math less strongly than boys.

Frustratingly, this is before any differences in performance emerge. But as the teacher study showed, as girls begin to incorporate the boys-are-the-math-students stereotype into their own way of thinking, their math performance begins to decline. Many of those girls will grow up to be second grade teachers with their own math anxiety, and the accompanying reduced math performance, and the cycle continues way past 2012.

So what is a mother of a daughter to do? I can’t help my daughter’s teacher feel better about her own math abilities. But one lesson from this teacher study also suggests one way to help. If girls pick up on adults’ math anxieties, be sure to never express your own anxieties about math. I know lots of women who casually state, “I am terrible at math” or “Math is SO not my subject.” Although there are plenty of exceptions, there are lots of moms out there who don't like math and do feel math anxiety (remember we learn these ideas by elementary school, and we carry them into adulthood). But before making these throwaway statements, remember that kids are listening. They are picking up on your subtle and not-so-subtle cues. They may incorporate your ideas about math into their bigger picture of what girls are good at...and not good at. So, be a model of confidence. Even when you aren’t. Even if it is a lie to state that "Math can be fun!." You may have to just fake it until they make it.  

Beyond Pink and Blue

Raising Children With Science Instead of Stereotypes
Christia Spears Brown, Ph.D.

Christia Spears Brown, Ph.D., is an associate professor of developmental psychology at the University of Kentucky, where she studies the effects of gender stereotypes among children and adolescents.

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