Girls and STEM: let’s ban the phrase ‘I suck at maths’

Michelle Gallaher has an undergraduate degree in Allied Health from La Trobe University and postgraduate qualifications in business. She is a graduate member of the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) as well as a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Management a corporate sponsor of Youth Projects and a Patron of the Melbourne Theatre Company. Michelle was the Chief Executive Officer of the BioMelbourne Network for 6 years and is considered a leading voice in the life science industry. Now a technology entrepreneur, Michelle is the Creative Director and Co-Founder of The Social Science. Michelle is a well-recognised science and innovation commentator on social media, particularly in biotech. A regular guest blogger, she publishes often and presented at TedX in 2014. Women in STEM is a subject that Michelle is very passionate about. She established the annual Connecting Women in Biotech Lunch in Melbourne for 450 women and advocates gender balance, promotion of women into leadership roles and improved workplace diversity and equity standards in the STEM industry. Michelle mentors women in science industry and is Co-Founder of Women in Science AUSTRALIA.

Are you sometimes guilty of saying ‘Go ask your Dad, he’s better at maths than me’, when your daughter or son comes to you and asks for help with their maths homework?

I am.

By doing this we are saying to our daughters and sons that women are not good at maths. And that’s just not true.

I recently went to a Year 7 math’s night at my daughter’s school, St Michael’s Grammar in Melbourne. The room was packed with kids and parents, mostly Dads. As we walked in, the teachers handed children and adults a maths test each. Surprise!

So many mothers around me were laughing nervously, lamenting that they shouldn’t have come, that they are rubbish at maths, the their husbands were so much better that ‘this sort of thing’ and that this was likely to be embarrassing.

By doing this we were again telling our kids that women are no good at maths. In fact I heard that phrase over and over – ‘I’m terrible at maths’.

Reflecting on the influential role parents, particularly mothers play when it comes to building confidence in our girls with STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects, we are unconsciously bias against girls.

The OECD (The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) Report on Gender Equality in Education reveals a very strong disincentive for girls to pursue STEM careers largely because of this unconscious bias and the continual negative reinforcement we are giving our girls.

Our girls lack confidence in science and maths and it’s not hard to see why. They are modelling their approach to maths and science based on our negative attitudes and behaviours.

These days we know that it’s not good for mothers (or fathers for that matter) to repeatedly discuss weight and weight loss around our teenage daughters. We know that girls listen intently to these messages and they often interpret and model this behaviour to a catastrophic endpoint resulting in eating disorders, anxiety and low self-worth. We are doing the same thing with maths and science. ‘I look so fat in that dress’ is the same type of message as ‘I’m so bad at maths.’

The OECD report points out that girls are actually better at maths and science that what they think they are. That confidence, or lack of it, is one of the biggest barriers to girls embracing STEM subjects and a lot of this responsibility falls on parents.

The maths teacher at my daughters’ school implored us to do this one thing: Never turn away a child who asks for help with their maths homework – even if you have no idea of the maths method they are being asked to use.

Take the time to help them pull the question apart, break it into pieces. Use logic, tech them to understand the question, even if you cant show them how to get the answer. Try to work it our together. Reinforce that asking for help is good. Show them that together, collaboration and discussion can help to address the problem. Use your research skills to help them find another way. Show them resilience and tenacity.

It’s OK to admit that you don’t know, but together you can find a way. Above all show confidence that there is a way or working it out. And if you are really stretched take it to Dad together, don’t walk away and leave it to him.

Girls are great at problem solving, they are great at collaborating, they are good observers and fantastic at collecting information – which naturally makes them great at maths and science.

Republished with permission: this article was originally published here by The Social Science.

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