“Girls Can’t Do Math”


Here’s the Forever 21  ( a store whose clientele are girls and young women) whose recent t-shirt campaign ignited a firestorm, shortly after another retail giant unveiled their t-shirt line: “I’m Too Pretty to Do Homework.”  Both suggest girls needn’t develop higher-thinking skills and both perpetuate negative stereotypes for girls.

I grew up in a household that believed “Girls can’t do math.”  My sister and I heard continually–“Men are good in science and mathematics; girls aren‘t.” We learned that this superior skill was reserved for the male gender, alone.  We females were genetically incapable of achieving success in that realm (our brains ‘didn‘t work that way.’) Our supposed expertise lay in the social skill set–history, languages, etc. (the subjects some regard as ‘fluff.’)

Who was the source of this ‘truth’?  None other than our father.

He was a teacher who’d become principal of our town’s only high school. In his earlier years in his career, he was the first football coach, too.  My two older brothers went on to be salutatorian and valedictorian of their respective classes.  In addition, they garnered top awards as Rhode Island Schoolboy Athletes of the Year; they were named to All-State teams (in a number of sports); they achieved Eagle Scout status and  the top Catholic scout award, Ad-al-tar-dei.  In short, they delivered on all expectations.

They became a lawyer and doctor, respectively.  My sister and I did well, too,  graduating from college, becoming an English teacher (in my instance) while she became a social worker.

From the git-go, however, I believed I was a genetic mutant. Why?  In the heady world of our family where numbers and figures ruled, I believed myself a misfit.  I recall the problem I had in telling time. Because I couldn‘t learn this simple skill, my father had an art teacher/friend create a cardboard clock with movable hands, on a carter pin, so he could position the hour and minute hands in different spots and tutor me.  He drilled me over and over, often showing his frustration.

Then, there were the multiplication tables (3rd. grade?) They’d become my Waterloo,  and apparently my school threatened to hold me back if I couldn’t master them.

Now, my parents did all the painting our home required, both inside and out.  The summer I learned the multiplication tables was the summer the outside of the house got a fresh coat of paint.  To that effect, my father positioned two ladders several feet apart and situated a plank across to facilitate their sitting, while performing the laborious task.  He and my mother then proceeded to paint, with him periodically moving the apparatus, as they completed one section and moved to another.

Against that backdrop, I learned the times tables.

Each day Mom got me up, gave me breakfast, and brought me out to sit on a blanket near the painting platform.  Then, she began quizzing me on the tables.  There, over the next hour or two, I stumbled my way through the tables, with her correcting me…often.  This litany went on for several weeks, daily.

Periodically, I’d hear my father react in frustration, as he slapped a paintbrush down, adding words that conveyed his annoyance at having such a disappointing child.  The real irony to all this?  My Dad’s area of expertise was chemistry and physics, but this job of teaching this basic math skill  to their child fell to my mother who only had an eighth grade education (she was pulled out by her Dad to go into the mill and help support their large family.)

Yes, it was almost as if my father said:  “I can’t believe I sired this child who can‘t get even the most elementary math concepts.”

In later years, I steered clear of trying to comprehend a subject that had become my nemesis. Even my rare success became suspect.  In my junior year of high school, I’d apparently come out third in the school on a statewide science test, a fact my father found ’surprising.’  He shared his disbelief that night at dinner (remember–as principal–he got all the test scores).

I considered that success an aberration; he apparently felt that way, too.

In college, I took Finite Math  (it was a requirement) but never went to class and never studied, and by midterm, I had an “F.”  In Introduction to Chemistry (also never went), I got a “D” at midterm. By the end of that semester, I’d reversed my grades, getting an “F” in chemistry and a “D” in math, a really stupid action on my part, since Chemistry was a 4-credit course (See–I‘m not good at math.).

My math instructor agreed to pass me if I never took another math course which was fine with me.  I knew: “Girls can’t do math.”

I took Chemistry over, in summer school, where I got an “A” (same instructor/same material.)  The difference?  I realized I needed this requirement and so I made the effort.

What’s  my point in sharing this part of my past?  Misogynist beliefs persist today about girls and their supposed inability to master the higher-thinking-skills math demands, and I say this: “Girls will live up to or down to a parent’s expectation.”

But girls most assuredly ‘can’t do math’ if they’re taught from early on that they can’t.

P.S.  My parents were products of their own flawed upbringing, and if my father bore sexist attitudes, it’s because he was raised with such.  But a child is a malleable form who’ll be the product adults shape–or work his or her life to overcome.

Read the following article by Sian Beilock in Psychology Today that demonstrates this mindset exists, despite our supposed advances in so many realms. Stereotypes persist–especially those detrimental to girls’ achievement in this most highly-respected field.

About admin

A lifetime teacher and realtor who's now a published writer, Colleen Kelly Mellor is a humorist first, ever aware of the thread that connects us all. Her works have appeared in the WSJ, Providence Journal, and CNN and NY Times-acclaimed medical blog, kevinMD.com, to name a few. All material on this blog is exclusive property of the author and cannot be reproduced without this author's express written consent.
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