Smashing the Stereotypes

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There is a scene that takes place at a math tournament in the 2004 film Mean Girls wherein each team must pick the weakest member from the other team to compete in a tie-breaking “sudden death” round. The boys on one team don’t even need to mull it over: they automatically pick the token female on the opposing team – because everyone knows girls aren’t as good as boys at math. Right?

Wrong. A new report on “Gender, Culture and Mathematics Performance,” concludes that there is no innate difference in the mathematical ability of girls and boys. Authored by Janet Hyde and Janet Mertz of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, the report appeared in June in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Hyde and Mertz’s latest report builds on their 2008 study that appeared in Science, which examined the SAT results and math scores of 7 million students and found that the girls matched the performance of the boys from second grade all the way through to the eleventh grade.

Granted, there were a few minor gender disparities, but Hyde and Mertz argue that these are not due to biological differences, but to socio-cultural factors. They point to the World Economic Forum’s measure of gender equality in various countries as evidence. “In countries where there is little or no measured gap between boys and girls in math performance, those are the countries with the greatest gender equality,” said Mertz. “That leads us to believe any math gender gap is cultural, not biological.” 

This prejudice against women in math and science dates back thousands of years and still pervades popular culture. History gives us the occasional rare exception to the rule. In 18th-century France, Emilie du Chatelet defied her father’s protests to pursue her interest in math and science. Fifty years later, Sophie Germain studied math in secret under the bedclothes at night, and masqueraded as a male student at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, eventually developing Germain primes – prime numbers where, if you double them and add 1, the answer is another prime number. Victorian England had Mary Somerville, another self-taught mathematician who defied the cultural stereotypes of her age. Her passion for math was so strong, she was revising a paper the day before she died at 92.

Such figures are often dismissed as anomalies, which is why we need more researchers like Hyde and Mertz to collect more and more data on this topic. And it’s why we need skilled communicators to spread the word and erode all those lingering negative assumptions. “There is a persistent stereotype that girls and women are just not as good at math as boys and men,” Hyde said. “The data we have indicate that’s just not true. I really think it’s important to get that word out and to chip away at that myth.” 

That’s where Hollywood can help, bringing its consummate skill at communicating with mass audiences via an entertaining medium. People are inspired by what they see on the screen, and the images they see invariably color their perceptions. In the United States, for instance, skill in mathematics isn’t highly valued: both boys and girls who are good at math are labeled “nerds,” whereas in other cultures, proficiency with numbers is an admirable quality. The hit TV show Numb3rs counters that stereotype every week, by providing real-world contexts to demonstrate its tagline: “We all use math every day.”

Mean Girls perfectly captures those cultural factors – like peer pressure and social stereotypes – that traditionally have impeded the performance of girls in mathematics. Homeschooled in Africa for most of her early life by her anthropologist parents, Cady (played by Lindsay Lohan) didn’t absorb the subliminal message that women can’t do math – at least until she begins attending a regular high school. Then the inevitable peer pressure kicks in. She is urged by her peers not to join the high school math team, despite the fact that she has a gift for numbers. “It’s social suicide!” she is told. Within a few weeks, she is pretending to be bad at math to win over the cute boy in her calculus class.

But Hollywood gives us a happy ending. Cady embraces her gift for calculus, and also gets to be homecoming queen, proving that a girl can be pretty, popular, very smart, and even snag the cutest boy in school, just by being true to herself. It’s a message more young girls need to hear. Mean Girls is one tiny yet critical blow in the ongoing effort to shatter those lingering stereotypes. One day there won’t just be a token girl on high school math squads, there will be several, and they will match their male classmates in skill. That’s the kind of revolutionary long-term change that can happen when science and Hollywood combine forces.

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.