By chance this holiday season I came about a book by actress and (apparently) math-whiz Danica McKellar best known for her role in The Wonder Years. The 2007 book “Math Doesn’t Suck” is aimed at middle school girls. The purpose of the book is to get girls interested in math and to overcome the stereotype that girls are naturally bad at it. This is a worthy goal. Only yesterday I read an article in the BPS Research Digest about how negative gender stereotypes about math impact women’s math performance. (Answer: Badly.)
…women’s maths performance suffers after they are reminded of the stereotype that men are better than women at maths.
… those students who more strongly endorsed gender stereotypes in relation to maths and the arts, subsequently showed more biased recall of their past exam performance. That is, girls who endorsed the stereotypes underestimated their past maths performance, while boys who endorsed the stereotypes tended to underestimate their past arts performance. …Girls given a more salient reminder of gender stereotypes underestimated their actual past maths exam performance while boys in this condition overestimated their maths performance.
I did not read the text of McKeller’s book itself, which may be excellent. What interested me most about McKellar’s book was how it was packaged appeal to pre-teen girls. The cover, which looks like Seventeen Magazine, tells girls they can get through middle school math “without breaking a nail.” It– for some reason I can’t fathom– asks in pink type “Do you still have a crush on him?” and promises “Horoscopes inside!” (It really does have horoscopes inside.) Of the three front cover blurbs that actually refer to math, all remind girls of negative gender stereotypes “Never be confused again,” “Are you a math-o-phobe? Take this quiz!” and “How to survive middle school math without losing your mind…”
Surviving math is setting the bar fairly low. The cover doesn’t promise to make you better than others in math or a master of math, only that you will get through it and be able, presumably, to move on to other (more gender appropriate) things when you’ve come out the other side.
The quotes on the back cover describe the book as “Clueless (the movie) meets Euclid” and say it brings “a little glamour to the teaching of mathematics.”
The endorsement that interested me the most, however, was from talk show host Leeza Gibbons who says the book is a roadmap to success for girls “no matter what career they choose.” (Again, there seems to be an underlying assumption that math is not going to be a big factor in the woman’s life after she leaves school.) What makes it such a path to success is that it “teaches the value of confidence that comes from feeling smart.”
None of the blurbs on the cover suggest that math might be useful that it might, for example, lead to a career in science, engineering, computer programming. Math matters because girls need confidence and self-esteem. Why is self-esteem important? Gibbons doesn’t say, but my intuition tells me that the underlying assumption is that it’s important for girls to have confidence because it makes them more charming, attractive and popular. In any case, building self-confidence and “showing off” are the only real world uses of math suggested in the cover endorsements.
All of this brings me back to something I have written about here before. When we talk about giving boys the tools for success we talk about what they can do. When we try to “empower” girls we tell them to think positive and feel good.
Back in September I quoted another BPS article that reported on studies that showed the benefits of praising children for their efforts rather than their inherent qualities:
“…the study revealed that parents tend to use more person praise with girls and more process praise with boys, echoing similar results in earlier research. In turn, later on, boys tended to express an incremental mindset [seeing ability as malleable and challenges as an opportunity to learn] more often than girls. This tallies with the picture painted in the developmental literature that girls more than boys attribute failure to lack of ability, especially in maths and science.”
Given that reminding girls of negative gender stereotypes about math tends to make them under-estimate their past performance, the blurbs on the front of this book seem likely to make girls less, not more, confident in their math ability. Framing success in math in “person praise” instead of “process praise” makes girls more likely to think of mathematical ability as a personal rather than learn-able trait. You either have or you don’t (and that girls usually don’t). But it’s OK, because the book cover reassures girls that they don’t have to master it in the long term– they just need to survive it while they’re in school and then they can move on to something else.