Anyone who has watched education closely over the last decade is quite familiar with the term STEM.  Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) are collectively the four branches which the government is currently putting special emphasis on because of our alarmingly low test scores in these areas.  Along with this special emphasis is also a lot of money, with federal budgets being increased specifically for these Girls and Mathdepartments.  However, one problem that many people are noting about these fields is that they are grossly underrepresented by women.  Traditionally, boys are pushed into math and science related jobs while girls are often pushed into the “softer, more emotional” humanities.  This cultural stereotype has even been reinforced by something as seemingly innocuous as our children’s toys, most famously with the “Math Is Hard” Barbie that eventually led to a recall and apology from Mattel.

So how do you encourage your daughter to succeed in this competitive, mathematical world when the deck seems to be stacked against her?  While we cannot change centuries of stereotypes and cultural conditioning, here are some tips for helping your child move forward in this field.

  • First off, mothers need to be positive role models for their daughters.  This goes for every area of life, obviously.  But with math, you may have to “fudge the facts” just a little.  If you hated math in school and were never very good at it, or if you always thought fractions were boring, don’t pass this on to your child.  Tell them that you struggled with it, but try to place this in a positive context.  You don’t want your child to hear you say that “math is boring” because then she will pick this up and start to feel that way too.
  • For younger children, give them hands-on opportunities to experience math.  Let them help you with balancing the family checkbook.  Have them help out in the kitchen and emphasize how measurements are an important part of math.  Let them give the money to the cashier at the store and then figure up the correct change they should receive back.  All of this will help create bonding opportunities for you with your child and also give valuable practical math lessons to them.
  • If your daughter is assigned a biography or research project, why not suggest that they look into famous women mathematicians?  Instead of the tried and true historical figures that dot every school research paper, encourage your daughter to find out more about Sofia Kovalevskaya, Hypatia of Alexandria, or Ingrid Daubechies.  Seeing that women have been able to accomplish a lot in the field of math throughout history will go a long way towards encouraging your daughter that she can be one of these pioneers some day.
  • Make sure to emphasize that math is fun.  Bookmark websites like Math Nook which makes mathematics into games which children of either gender will appreciate and find fun.  This will help do away with the “math is boring” stereotype that plagues so many children.
  • Take your daughter on your own field trip.  Call around to local engineering firms and universities to see if there are any female members of the staff who would be willing to meet with your daughter and allow her to shadow them for a day.  Many of these women are well aware of the anti-math stereotype among girls and will be happy to do what they can to help shatter this myth.
  • Usually, elementary age girls love math.  It isn’t until middle and high school that the anti-math mentality starts to set in.  To combat this, consider buying the math book series written by Danica McKellar, the actress best known for playing Winnie on The Wonder Years.  Winnie is all grown up with a degree in mathematics and she is the writer behind Math Doesn’t Suck: How to Survive Middle-School Math and not Break a Nail.  This book, along with others in the series, is designed like popular magazines geared for teen girls and use things they can relate to like make-up, recipes, and relationships to explain complex ideas like fractions and decimals.
  • Ask your child’s math teacher for a list of the topics that she will be covering this year.  That way, you can help show an interest by knowing exactly what they will be discussing and learning about as the school term progresses.

Again, it is impossible for even the most caring parent to change centuries of stereotyping.  But by showing an interest, you can personally help your child break through the barrier and learn to love math.