Many girls grow up as “just not good” at math or science. Disturbingly, this was accepted by parents and teachers alike. Not only accepted but expected! Girls aren’t really good at math, right? Science isn’t really their thing, right? That’s why we don’t buy them astronaut-type toys or chemistry sets. We stick to stuff they can handle, like princess dresses and kitchens. Girls can handle language, art and literature a lot more so that’s their “thing” and we leave the math and science to the boys – that’s where they are strongest.
Now lest this seem like a gross stereotype, I don’t mean it to be. But stereotypes have a foundation in truth, seen in everything from subject choices in school to the kinds of dress-up and playgroups we host (the boy will be the doctor, the girl will be the nurse. The boy will be the pilot, the girl will be the flight attendant. Boy always in charge; girl is his assistant.) We don’t see this as much anymore but it remains – subtle and soft; and unintentionally encouraged by many well-meaning parents and educators alike.
The first female astronaut in space (aboard the 1983 Challenger) Sally Ride, was interviewed on NPR today. She spoke of her background, of her triumphs and challenges and also went into great detail about girls and their relationship with math and science. Sally said she sees great improvement in how adults perceive girls and their scientific capabilities but more work is needed. She recounted a woman who made a bee-line for her at some sort of convention or science fair. She proudly introduced her daughter as a real talent in science and talked to Ms. Ride about how well the young girl was doing. Sally was pleased with the conversation until the woman made a point of saying (in front of her daughter) that she “had no idea where she got it from! I’m not good at science!” Sally thought how the well-meaning mother had subtly (or not so) told her daughter she was a bit weird for being good at science. Would that mom have said the same thing if she had a son, instead of a daughter?
A 2008 study by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) saw that a perception of science by girls was very important.