A reader wrote in an e-mail that her third-grade daughter is already saying girls just aren't good at math. "Where in the heck did she get that?" the reader wrote. "Are there any resources for parents who want their girls to not fall into that trap?"
I sent the question to Penny Rheingans, associate professor of computer science and interim director of the Center for Women and Information Technology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Rheingans wrote that this is largely a problem of perception, and that girls actually perform as well as boys at math at least through high school. "Unfortunately, the perception alone can be damaging, convincing girls that they're not supposed to succeed at math," she wrote.
"Those who belong to groups not typically expected to succeed in a setting ... are more vulnerable internalizing the inevitable rough spots in a challenging subject. A minor difficulty in a math class can leave a girl convinced that she's the problem and just not suited for math. A boy in a similar situation would be more likely to conclude that the teacher or the test or some other external factor was the problem, since it couldn't possibly be him."
Here are a few tips Rheingans wrote to help:
Offer encouragement It's important to recognize and reinforce things that go right. Concrete, specific praise tends to be more believable to those skeptical about their abilities, so "Wow, I was impressed by how you solved that problem" works better than "You're great at math."
Enlist a group Being a majority of the [group you're working in] helps counter the effects of not being stereotypically expected to excel. Experiments have shown girls to do better on math tests in majority-girl groups than when they're in the minority. Even a single buddy will provide a sounding board for experiences and expectations, as well as peer-pressure to persist.
Emphasize practical applications Point out math aspects of activities she enjoys: probability in card games, fractions in cooking, score differentials and trends in sports, and discounts in shopping.
"Girls are frequently more motivated by math and technology as a means to an end, rather than as an end to itself," Rheingans wrote. "Ways in which math, science and technology can help people, animals and the environment are particularly engaging."
Rheingans offered a couple of Web resources she thought would help. Sally Ride Science (sallyridescience.com) runs programs and provides materials and links to cool Web sites for educators, parents and girls. The Ada Project has a great list of math and computer science links for girls (women.cs.cmu.edu/ada/Resources/TAPJunior).