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If girls are bad at math, should we blame their mothers?

Economists calculate how sexism at home may be transmitted to daughters

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Proof Points

A student completes a math problem at a West Virginia school.

Girls in biased homes performed worse on math tests, study finds.

There are loads of theories for why girls tend to do worse in math than boys, from differences in innate ability to discrimination by teachers. Many argue that our culture discourages girls from excelling at math. Now a team of economists has produced a study that calculates how a family’s attitudes about women can impede girls’ math achievement at school.

Specifically, in the state of Florida, girls raised in families that prefer boys scored lower on the state’s annual math tests than girls in less sexist families. The detrimental effects of this “boy bias” were largest for wealthier, well-educated families.  (More below on how the researchers categorized families as “boy-biased” or not.)

In a second analysis of 35 years of national survey data, the researchers found a strong correlation between a young woman’s beliefs about women’s roles and her future daughters’ subsequent math scores. Women who felt that a woman’s place is in the home tended to have lower-achieving daughters than those who supported the notion of working mothers. Their sons’ math scores, by contrast, were unaffected by these maternal views.

“We demonstrate that girls in boy-biased households do worse in math,” says David Figlio, dean of Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy and one of the study’s four authors.

Related: The biggest hole in the STEM pipeline starts before kindergarten

In recent years, girls have made great strides in catching up to boys when it comes to annual math tests.  But there remains a big gender gap in who excels in math, who takes advanced math and science courses later in high school and who majors in math and science in college.

“It’s fair to speculate that some proportion of the gap in advanced course taking, the so-called STEM pipeline, has to do with the fact that we have a bunch of families, even native-born American families — we’re not talking about immigrants here — that are boy-biased enough that their girls don’t do STEM,” says Figlio, using the acronym for science, technology, engineering and math.

The study, “Born in the Family: Preferences for Boys and the Gender Gap in Math,” is a working paper, which means it hasn’t been published in a peer-reviewed journal and is still being revised, but it was circulated by the National Center for the Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER) in February 2019.

The researchers began by studying Florida because of its vast data trove and the ability to link years of birth records with school records. This study analyzed families who started having kids between 1994 and 2002 and sent them to public schools between 2002 and 2012.

It’s tough for researchers to figure out which families harbor more traditional, sexist beliefs and which might be more egalitarian. One approach, invented by previous researchers, employs something called “fertility stopping rules.”  When a family’s first-born child is a girl but the parents keep having babies until they produce a boy, that’s a sign that the family might prefer boys.

Related: The problem with high-stakes testing and women in STEM

Making babies until you make a boy is an imperfect sign of bias, to be sure. But it’s interesting to note how the female offspring of these families in Florida did worse in math, as measured by the state’s annual FCAT assessments, compared to girls in families that didn’t exhibit this preference for boys.

“If you’re a daughter in a boy-biased family, it’s kind of like taking away a third of the benefit of dramatically smaller class sizes for you or it’s like taking away a third of a year of maternal education for you,” explains Figlio.

The boys in these boy-biased families didn’t seem to do any better or worse in math than boys raised in other families.

Even among families with the same income and educational backgrounds, girls in boy-biased families did worse on math tests. In fact, the wealthier the family and the more educated the mother, the more their daughters’ test scores suffered.

Of course, there are plenty of non-biased families who wanted only two kids and just happened to have a girl first and a boy second. Similarly, there are plenty of biased families that have only girls and no sons but decided not to have more babies.

That’s why the researchers conducted a second study in the same paper that didn’t rely on kids’ genders to ascertain bias. Instead, they went back to an old national survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics that started tracking young people between ages 14 and 22 in 1979.  Almost 5,000 of them were women who eventually had at least one child by 2014 and were regularly interviewed. Their children’s performance in mathematics was also assessed.

On several occasions, the women were asked how much they agreed or disagreed with these three statements:

1) A woman’s place is in the home, not in the office or shop.

2) It is much better for everyone concerned if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family.

3) Women are much happier if they stay at home and take care of their children.

The researchers found that the more the women agreed with these statements, the lower their daughters’ math scores. There was no connection between a mother’s attitudes and her sons’ subsequent math scores.

Related: Should we stop making kids memorize times tables?

Unfortunately, the researchers weren’t able to test how fathers’ attitudes affected their kids’ math scores because the dataset isn’t as complete for men.

So, should we blame parents, especially moms, for their daughters’ weaker math achievement?

Figlio says no. “Parenting is really hard. We spend so much time second guessing ourselves,” says Figlio, a father of three girls, none of whom pursued STEM fields. “Boy bias is in the culture. We have a culture where even high-performing women are still discouraged from work in certain fields in a way in which boys are not. It’s changing but I view this as a societal challenge.”

Figlio recommends that schools help counter societal biases by exposing all kids to science-rich environments and by combating stereotypes. “We know that there are stereotypes about women in STEM,” he said. “Try to undermine common stereotypes that link specializing in STEM fields with a masculine identity.” He advises parents to do the same.

Jo Boaler, a professor at Stanford University who specializes in math instruction, has long sounded alarms about how mothers inadvertently transmit their anxiety about math onto their daughters. She argues that it’s harmful to daughters when mothers say that they’re not good at math. (Boaler’s six tips for parents can be found here.)

Figlio agrees. “When a mom says, ‘I hate math,’ that’s reinforcing the stereotype that women hate math,” he said. “A really good thing to do, if you want your daughters to consider math, is to work extra hard to undermine that stereotype.”

This story about girls’ math achievement was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Jill Barshay

Jill Barshay is a staff writer and editor who writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data. She taught algebra to ninth… See Archive

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