Straight Talk Advice

Why Girls Hate Math

Jul 29, 2014

Teaching style, not intelligence makes females less drawn to science and math

Dear Straight Talk: I'm a woman in high tech and a regular Straight Talk reader. The disproportionately small number of women in STEM [science, technology, engineering, math] is all over the news. Yet I've never seen anyone asking young people about this. What turns girls off? Is it how these subjects are taught? Or is it uncool socially? What's the "straight talk" on this? —Ellen, Sacramento, Calif.

Brandon 22, Mapleton, Maine Ask me a question

Brandon, 22, Mapleton, Maine: One deterrent is socially-inept intellectual young males. There's an aura around this generation's programmers, science majors and technology majors that you should be male, use a “troll” website like 4chan or Reddit, and share beliefs about women “staying in the kitchen”. Online jokes about women in barbaric roles have created huge gender tension. Truthfully, many of these intellectual nerds are internet shut-ins and their lack of social interaction makes them hostile. I witnessed top members of my computer programming trade telling women, “Go back to your Easy Bake oven,” rather than help them with their programming error. Not all geeks are nerds. Many geeks are cool and socially connected, however, they could be much more active in encouraging women.

Ashley 26, Auburn, Calif. Ask me a question

I'm tech savvy and I like figuring things out — but I HATE MATH. Hate it, hate it. My mom believes I might've liked it if I'd been taught differently. I hope they do start teaching it differently.

Lyric 16, Santa Rosa, Calif. Ask me a question

I'm not very good in these subjects. I probably would be if I tried, but they don't interest me. Surprisingly, I've never had a female math or science teacher. Perhaps that's why.

Christina 22, Marysville, Calif. Ask me a question

I'm going into teaching and find this subject interesting. I didn't like math until college, when algebra was finally explained in a way that I could understand it (yes, by a female teacher). My math teachers were all male in high school. They knew how to explain math one way — the way that made sense to them. Regarding science, college science teachers are passionate! In high school, 80 percent didn't give their subject the praise and positive attention to make it appealing.

Taylor 17, Santa Rosa, Calif. Ask me a question

People say sexism is dead, but girls are totally taught that being pretty and sweet is more important than intelligence. Boy toys are geared towards building (Lego, trains, etc.), while girl toys are dolls and makeup. The differences are continuously beat into them by the media and schools. While I enjoy math and science, and have had both male and female teachers, English comes easier, so I like it better.

Katelyn 19, Huntington Beach, Calif. Ask me a question

I dislike STEM fields simply because my brain (as opposed to other girls') isn't built for it. I struggle with math and find science boring (except for astronomy). While many girls lack encouragement, I'm just not interested.

Jake 18, Grass Valley, Calif. Ask me a question

It's mostly genetics. More men enjoy “tangible creation”, whereas more women enjoy “intangible problem solving”. My electrical engineering field is focused on creating tangible innovations based on already-defined concepts, whereas female-dominated fields, like psychology, require more deep thought.

Brie 23, San Francisco Ask me a question

Science never intrigued me, but math, and to a certain extent, technology, do. Math was challenging, but always my favorite homework. Numbers made sense to me, perhaps because I went to a Waldorf elementary school where math is taught really differently than in public schools. While some girls think it's not cool to be smart, I'm not one of them.

Rachel 23, Corte Madera, Calif. Ask me a question

I loved math as a kid, but struggled as I got older, while boys who had struggled, suddenly understood. Working with children, I saw the same trend. Are young girls just better at sitting and completing worksheets, or is it something cultural, or brain-based, that makes boys excel later on?

Dear Ellen: The panel has shoveled the muck from the truck, revealing cultural sexism from society, “neo-caveman” sexism from the industry, ineffective teaching, and brain-based genetic differences. Brain-based differences have been pooh-poohed by the “enlightened”, but new brain science shows that male and female brains, while equally capable at math and science, (and at being collaborative and emotional), are wired significantly differently — thus responding differently to different teaching styles.

I believe this is the lynchpin, and highly recommend you read “Why Gender Matters“ by Leonard Sax, M.D., Ph.D., where this science is laid out. Many girls start strong in math because elementary school teachers are overwhelmingly female and are teaching (unconsciously) to the female brain. They typically begin struggling in high school and abandon ship because their STEM teachers, now often male, are teaching (unconsciously) to the male brain — and virtually all STEM textbooks are geared toward the male brain, influencing even female-taught classes. To see more women in STEM, and more men in education and humanities, a real solution is single-sex classes with teachers teaching to that sex. 

Editor's Note: I'm excited to have more people read Dr. Sax's acclaimed book on gender differences. Since the women's liberation movement, most educated people have clung to the gender-neutral concept that assumes the sexes are the same neurologically (we're both humans, right?) and it is that pesky social conditioning by unwitting parents, patriarchal society, and the profit-driven media that makes girls want Barbie dolls and boys want trucks and balls.

My first three children were boys, all two years apart. When my daughter came along two years after that, there wasn't a single girl toy in the house, only boy toys and boy energy. Well, she wanted none of it. Before she could even walk, she'd crawl amidst the action, a neutral observer, not that interested in partaking, versus my third son, who couldn't wait to do what his brothers were doing. She liked only one toy, a brightly-dyed sheath of silk, which she would drape herself in and be happy for hours. Much to my astonishment, I kid you not, she was also fascinated with her shoes! Those boys may have been her brothers, sharing a closer DNA match than anyone on the planet, but they were not her peers!

The science about male and female brain differences is relatively new and the differences noted in humans are being seen in other primates and mammals as well. It's very important to understand that the male and female brain are both incredibly sophisticated and capable, neither one better or worse — just different. As Dr. Sax says, "The difference between what girls and boys can do is not large. But how they do it, can be large indeed... You can make math appealing to girls by teaching it one way, or you can make it appealing to boys by teaching it another way. Girls and boys can both learn math equally well if you understand those gender differences."

Schools that are converting to single-sex education (often using single-sex classrooms in a coed school) are of great interest to me. Dr. Sax reports: "There is very strong evidence that girls are more likely to take courses such as computer science and physics in girls-only schools than in coed schools. Boys in single-sex schools are more than twice as likely to study art, music, foreign languages, and literature...."

I'll share about one school in his book: James Lyng High School, a low-income public school in Montreal, converted to a single-sex academy with girls-only and boys-only classes. After five years, absenteeism dropped by two-thirds, scores on standardized tests improved 15 percentile ranks, the number of kids heading to college nearly doubled, and teen pregnancy dropped from about 15 girls a year to about two. Not too shabby.

Sax is an MD pediatrician and a Doctor of Psychology. Every insight and claim in "Why Gender Matters" is backed by peer-reviewed science. He lectures extensively to wake teachers and parents up to the false assumption that males and females absorb and process information the same way. As just one example, take the anatomy of the eye. A boy's eye is, by its inherent structure, designed to track movement and direction and also to see black, gray, silver and blue more than the other colors (finally! boys' drawings explained!). A girl's eye, by design, is superior in detecting color and texture, making her prefer faces over moving objects. The inherent differences in eye anatomy explain why, in experiments with babies (before they even know what sex they are), baby boys overwhelmingly prefer objects that involve motion while most (but not all) baby girls prefer dolls. The same results were found in experiments with chimpanzee babies, who we know aren't conditioned by society to like dolls versus trucks.

I was also surprised to learn that as information travels from the retina to the cerebral cortex, every step of the neurological path is different in boys versus girls!

Another tidbit about boys and "feelings": If you're frustrated about boys not talking about their feelings, well, they can't help it! In boys, the amygdala, which processes emotion, is simply not connected to the cerebral cortex, where language is formed. Boys can't talk about their emotions! In a girl's brain, her emotional center is also in the amygdala, but by middle childhood, it gets wired up to the cerebral cortex, and this connection strengthens with age. Girls aren't more emotional than boys, they just have access to words to describe them.

Today's column started out about the disadvantages to girls from coed education, but boys have been even bigger losers in my opinion. Our elementary schools are overwhelmingly dominated by female teachers (grades K-3 have 95 percent female teachers). And the worst thing for boys is that Kindergarten became the new First Grade about 30 years ago. The days of finger painting, listening to stories, and getting to run around are long gone. In today's brave new Kinder-deserts, 4- and 5-year-olds must sit obediently for reading, writing and math. Most boys are developmentally unable to do this and instead of modifying the system, they are being drugged. (According to sources cited in Sax's book, most ADHD recommendations come from teachers, not doctors!) Or if they're not drugged, they are put in the "not ready" group, which these boys know full well is the "dumb" group. I don't blame them a bit for hating school.

While girls are ripped off in high school, boys are ripped off at the starting gate. We are seeing the results with a reversal of genders in college. In 2009, 25 percent fewer males graduated from college than females. In 1960, graduation rates were almost exactly the opposite. Regarding STEM, foreign workers are increasingly hired to fill the employment gap in STEM fields not met by U.S. citizens. According to the Population Reference Bureau, in 2006, close to one in three workers in science and engineering were foreign born, double the ratio seen in 1994, when only one in six were foreign-born.

Dr. Sax also talks about how raising kids gender-neutral has led to anxiety and confusion for children. Gender, like age, is a top organizing principle for humans, and when nature is ignored, it is sure to react. (Witness the extreme sexualizing of both boys and girls today, on even grade-school campuses, AND the unprecedented gender and sexual-orientation confusion, something Straight Talk's mailbox is filled with.) In schools that are honoring brain differences through single-sex education, teaching STEM subjects to girls, and humanities, arts, and foreign languages to boys in ways both sexes can understand and find appealing, there is strong evidence that such problems are lessening. Please everyone, read this book! —Lauren

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  1. By Lisa, age 16, from Elk Grove, CA on 07/29/2014

    This really hits home with me!  I love math and have always been great at it.  I have received numerous math achievement awards.  I am interested in majoring in math and becomming a math teacher or even a college math professor.  What do I get for my achievements?  Being ridiculed and labeled a “geek!”  I am not unattractive, but no guy is interested in dating the “geek,” and even most (but not all) girls shy away from me.  Even my parents have politely suggested that I look into a career that is “more suitable” for a female, rather than being proud of my achievements.  I had my achievement awards proudly displayed in the room my sister and I share, but she and her friends would just laugh at them and make fun of me because of them, so I took them down.  Based on my experience, there is lots of prejudice against girls pursuing a career in math, and the same is probably also true of science, technology, and engineering.


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    1. By Tom, age 17, from Petaluma, CA on 07/30/2014

      I really feel for Lisa and want to say that the same things also happen to guys.  I’m a caring person and want to have a career in a helping profession, and am interested in the health care field.  I really don’t think I’m cut out to be a doctor, so I am interested in being a nurse.  However, I learned really fast that I have to keep my mouth shut about it, as most guys would laugh hysterically at the idea of a guy being a nurse and some even implied that I must be gay!  This even includes my stepfather who is a hard hat construction worker who thinks he’s “Mr. Macho” and already put me down for not being “macho.”  He roared with laughter when I mentioned my interest in becomming a nurse and now sometimes calls me “nursie.”  When his daughter (who can do no wrong in his eyes) stays with us on visitations, instead of having her share my sister’s room, he makes me share a room with my sister so that she can have private room.  He says it shouldn’t bother us since “nursie” is more like a girl.  Even though my sister and I get along well and have found ways to deal with the “undressing” issue, it still makes us uncomfortable to share a room as opposite sex teenagers.

      I have done extensive research and have found that nursing is not an exclusively female profession by any means.  While it may have been true in the past, male nurses now are common.  In fact, they are in high demand and the job market outlook is excellent, unlike many other professions these days. 

      I am not letting this change my plans, but it still hurts to be ridiculed about it.


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      1. By Susan, age 16, from Huntington Beach, CA on 07/30/2014

        It sounds like we have a similar stepfather.  He doesn’t think that my brother, sister, and I need to go to college.  He thinks our brother should be a truck driver like he is since it’s good enough for him and was good enough for his father.  He thinks my sister and I should get married and have kids like his mother and sisters did.  Our mom would like to get a job so that we could have more and also help us go to college, but he won’t allow it.  We’re still determined to go to college, but it won’t be easy as we’ll have to totally depend on financial aid, loans and anything we can earn on our own.  All 3 of us have to share a room because he’s too cheap to get a 3 bedroom place so that our brother could have his own room.  He says we’re just being selfish when we bring the subject up.  We don’t think we’re being selfish, as my sister and I would gladly share a room.  We’re just not comfortable sharing a room with our brother any more since he’s a boy, and he feels the same way about sharing with us.


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        1. By LAUREN, from on 07/30/2014

          Susan—Sounds like your stepfather lives in a very small closed-minded world. He probably actually believes his advice to you. Set up a mental shield around yourselves so as to not absorb this kind of thinking and continue to see the world with an open mind. Fortunately you are not trapped like your mother appears to be.

          Of course go to college! Apply for the grants, take the loans, work part time, and work summers. It’s worth it. Don’t go to one of these private-for-profit colleges though, they are a rip off. Go to a real college. Doing 2 years at a community college is a huge expense saver—then transfer as a junior to University.

          Regarding the 3 of you having to share a room, it sounds like there is no choice. Set up a DIY privacy screen by tacking a sheet across the room and please, for your brother’s sake, take the time to change in the bathroom, or behind the screen. (Sounds like you are already sensitive to this, and that’s good!). Good luck! Be glad you are a free bird and will be out of there soon.—Love, Lauren

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      2. By LAUREN, from on 07/30/2014

        Tom—More parents drinking the KoolAid! Here I’m referring to parents or stepparents who find humor in ridiculing and putting down their own offspring. (What good could possibly come of this??) I’m glad you’re going forward anyway and have looked into the facts about nursing (i.e. highly-paid meaningful and interesting work, plenty of demand, and yes, male nurses are very common—and, yet (I think) so what if they weren’t?!). Your friends and stepfather are just showing their ignorance—and their insecurities about their own manhood. Let it roll off your shoulders. Like Lisa, you will look back from a job you love that is enabling you to advance in life and just smile.

        Regarding having to share the room with your sister when his “perfect” daughter shows up, this sounds par for the course. It’s up to you whether you want to go to bat with him over this nonsense… it might not be worth dealing with him, and it sounds like you and your sister have worked out the changing routine. You’re 17, the time left there is short.

        That said, sometimes men will actually begin liking and showing respect for another man if that man gets angry with them when they’re being a jerk (which he is). If you got angry and let him know with raised voice/yelling about how juvenile it is that he ridicules you —and that it must stop, and how he must not have a clue about how things work or he’d put the girls together —and that you are not giving up your room again, it just might shift everything. If telling him off and making these demands sounds like something you are dying to do, you have my full permission. Do not apologize when you’re done, or ever, and don’t stop halfway through. Just a thought. I’ve seen it work and it beats bottling up your rage (if that is happening) (but maybe it’s not, maybe he’s just a nuisance not worth bothering with). Or maybe he’d throw you out of the house (— which by the way, if it comes to this, it would be a bluff). Follow your gut on it. Doing nothing is totally fine, too, trust your intelligence to discern the best approach. If you do decide to do something, I’d be curious to know how things go.—Love, Lauren

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    2. By LAUREN, from on 07/30/2014

      Lisa—I never dreamed you’d get ridiculed from other girls… and I’m especially disturbed that your sister is one of them and you parents are suggesting you switch interests. Oh, my gosh, did these people drink the KoolAid? This is so much worse than in my generation, where girls were encouraged in math and sciences. I sure hope you don’t listen to this group, even your parents in this case. They must be projecting their own social fears onto you. You are poised to enter a super high paying career and will find yourself around extremely intelligent people, who will admire you very much. It also sounds like math is a passion and what a gift to find one’s passion! My suggestion is to join clubs and find friends who also have passions and are going places. This and simply waiting it out are your strategies. Once you get in college, achievements tend to work in your favor and believe me, there are a lot of intelligent guys looking for an intelligent girl. Time goes quickly, just concentrate on your studies and grow a thick skin… it will serve you well down the road. In no time at all you’ll look back and be so glad you stayed on track.

      You say you want to teach math. Someone like you could figure out how to teach math to girls and inspire a whole generation! You could author the first algebra text book for girls! By the time you graduate, there will be more single-sex classes and schools where girls are going to get turned on to math (instead of what’s happening today). Female math teachers will have huge opportunities to make a big impact! Keep me posted way into the future, will you? I see great things for you!—Love, Lauren

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  2. By Gabriela A. Gonzalez, age 45, from Chandler, AZ on 08/01/2014

    I received my Bachelor degree in Electrical Engineering over 20 years ago and at that time we were not better off than we are today.  After spending 20+ years in the industry as a practicing engineering, I started asking myself the same question: why have we not made any progress?  what is it that keep girls away?  Four years ago I decided to go back to school to pursue a Ph.D. with this research question in mind (on a part-time basis as I’m stilly employed full time).  I am also part of an even smaller demographic: Latinas in engineering.  I was born in Mexico and came to the U.S. at the age of 13.  I’m well aware of all the “known” causes: lack of role models, lack of mentors, lack of love for math and/or science, lack of representation, (put your own words here), etc.  Being an engineer, I think the problem is multivariate and not a single variable issue, such as gender.  We haven’t solved the problem because we have been focusing on the symptoms and not the root causes.  We have relied on women solving these issues vs. the entire society contributing to the solution.  I didn’t have a love for math (still don’t) but I appreciated the value of learning it.  I didn’t love science, but I could see how it provided a foundation for understanding.  What I loved was solving problems and making life better for others, that’s why I fell in love with engineering and still love it today.  Math and science were tools for me to engineer.  Once I understood that, the myth of “you have to love math and science” went away.  Yet we still only focus on “pipelining” kids who love or do well in math and science towards STEM careers.  What about the other 95% of the kids who either 1) don’t know what being an engineer/scientist is all about and 2) who don’t perform well at math and science because they don’t “love” the subjects or see them as tools to something greater?  It’s hard to believe in the pipeline model when we have a dry well.  If less speakers started their keynotes to kids with “Engineering is hard, you have to take many difficult and challenging courses, etc.” or if professors didn’t introduce Physics courses as “weeding out those who don’t deserve to be there”, we may have more kids choosing STEM majors.  I can’t think of a single way in which a medical degree is less challenging/difficult than an engineering or natural sciences one. Yet, doctors save lives and make people healthy.  Doctors are not seen as “nerds” or “socially-inept” people.  We could learn a lot from the medical field on how to attract and inspire young women (and yes, even more young men) to become engineers and scientists.  Doctors save lives.  Engineers help doctors save lives and make those lives even better.

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    1. By LAUREN, from on 08/03/2014

      Gabriela—You’ve made a brilliant observation! I agree that a medical degree is just as difficult as an engineering or science degree, yet you are right at how many women are inspired to doctors! I think the way these careers are presented and understanding the deeper value of the careers, as you postulate here, is a BIG factor! Thank you for pointing this out. I hope a lot of people read this!—Thank you for writing in.—Love, Lauren

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  3. By Bev, age 17, from Lodi, CA on 08/01/2014

    For me the issue isn’t STEM, but I face a similar issue.  When I graduate next year, I want to serve my country by serving in the Army.  Nobody has a problem when a guy wants to join the military.  They are commended and considered patriotic.  However, everybody thinks I’m crazy because I’m a girl.  My parents are up in arms because I want to do this instead of going straight to college.  I don’t plan on making the military my permanent career, and still plan on going to college, but I want to serve my country first.  My mom tries to scare me by telling me horror stories about how I’ll have to live in a barracks with 50 other girls and have absolutely no privacy and not even have privacy in the showers or even the toilets.  I’ve never been shy about my body with other females and grew up sharing a room with and undressing in front of my sister, so I can handle the lack of privacy in the barracks and the showers.  I’m not convinced that what she says about no privacy in the toilets is true, but I think I could even learn to handle that.  If that’s the way it is and everybody has to do it, it’s probably not the end of the world and you can get used to it.

    My little sister is very upset at the idea as she’s worried I’ll be sent to a war and be killed.  I certainly don’t want to die, but I’m willing to risk my life for my country.  Where would we be if others had not done so?


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    1. By S.L., age 17, from Carmichael, CA on 08/03/2014

      My sister’s in the Army and faced the same kind of prejudices when she announced her intentions.  However, our family totally supports her.  Of course, we worry about her and pray for her, but we are proud that she is serving our country.  According to what she’s told me, the lack of privacy in the barracks and showers is true, but it soon becomes a daily routine and nobody gives it a second thought, and it’s not much different than she and I undressing in front of each other and seeing each other nude everyday in the room we shared, and still share whenever she comes home.  However, she says that the rumor of no privacy in the toilets is totally untrue, at least in the female latrine.  She obviously doesn’t know about how much privacy there is in the men’s latrine!


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    2. By LAUREN, from on 08/03/2014

      Bev—At the time of this decision, you will be 18 and a high school graduate, able to embark on whatever independent path you are capable of. Many parents are upset when their child, male or female, wants to serve in the military. It frightens them, and naturally so, as they invested 18 years in raising you and want to see a future with the highest chances of you alive and healthy. I think the key here is to have compassion for their position as parents, while at the same time, since you say you want this and it’s a worthy goal,  put one foot in front of the other to make it happen. When they see you mean it, they will probably switch to being supportive. It is no different than when a parent isn’t completely resolved on a rule, a kid will badger them forever to get what want. If your parents see any sign that you’re not completely sure of your decision, they will pester, but as soon as they see you are resolutely going for it, I predict they will stop and become, if not supportive, accepting. 

      The key for you is to really listen to YOURSELF. You may decide halfway through the year to do something different. Changing your mind is as okay as going forward. It sounds like whatever you do, you will bring a lot of positive energy to it!—Love, Lauren

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