A popular book dispels common stereotypes about the sexes.

Girls Don't Do Math & Other Destructive Myths


The idea that females are more nurturing and emotional by nature while males are more logical and aggressive has been repeated so often that it's become an unquestioned assumption. But in their new book, Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children, and Our Jobs, Rosalind Barnett, Ph.D., a senior scientist at Brandeis University in Waltham, MA, and Caryl Rivers, a journalism professor at Boston University, examine decades' worth of research, bestselling books, and media coverage about the sexes and find them riddled with misinformation. In an interview, Dr. Barnett explains what the latest research shows and how parents can enable their daughters, their sons, and themselves to reach their full potential.

Q: Where did this idea that men and women are wired differently come from, and why are you sure it's a myth?

A: For generations, there have been theories -- women supposedly had smaller brains, were more childlike, or had penis envy. No one takes these ideas seriously anymore, but in the late 1970s, Carol Gilligan, then a professor of education at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA, began to argue that girls were different but not inferior. Girls organize their world around relationships and judge themselves based on the quality of their bonds, she said, while boys are rational and make abstract judgments. Gilligan's theory was appealing, especially for women who felt their caretaking skills had been undervalued. Today, we've all been affected by her theory. You encounter it in management texts that describe a "gentler female style of leadership" and in bestsellers like Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus by John Gray, Ph.D.

But Gilligan based her theory on just three studies she conducted, two of which had fewer than 30 subjects, all female. Research conducted since then has drawn other conclusions. Studies on gender differences that have been controlled for income, education, race, and class consistently find that these factors are much more powerful predictors of behavior than gender.

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Q: But how does it hurt women to be thought of as the nurturing sex?

A: In some discrimination cases, employers have cited Gilligan's work to argue that the reason women aren't in powerful positions is that they are "relational" and don't want those jobs. And if your employer believes you will drop out of the workforce once you become a mother, why should he move you up the ladder? I've also seen men who actually question their own inclination to be involved parents. If they aren't putting every ounce of energy into striving for the top, they worry that something is wrong with them. Yet, in 1996 Barbara Risman, Ph.D., a sociology professor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, found that men who had primary responsibility for childcare parented their kids the same way mothers do.

Q: Is it also a myth that girls aren't innately able to succeed as well in math as boys?

A: Yes. In the 1980s, a Johns Hopkins University study looked at the math SAT scores of 9,927 gifted students, found that the boys outperformed the girls, and drew the conclusion that since the children shared the same classrooms, their experiences must have been the same. Therefore, the difference had to be innate. All of a sudden, there were headlines about a "math gene."

In fact, other research, including a 2001 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study that tracked nearly 20,000 girls and boys from ages 4 to 18 -- found that girls and boys have roughly equivalent math scores. There are more differences in scores among boys and among girls than between the sexes. But such studies get little publicity, and that's unfortunate; a study conducted 10 years after the Hopkins one found that mothers of girls who were familiar with it had lowered their expectations of their girls' math performance.

Q: How can parents play a role in terms of the toys they buy for their kids?

A: We know that until the age of 3, kids will play with anything -- from toy trains to kitchen sets. But after age 3, children prefer sex-stereotyped toys. Children at that age go through a developmental phase in which they become less secure about what sex they really are. They also get messages about gender from society. Many toy stores today have girls' and boys' aisles, implying what's appropriate for each sex. Parents should ignore how the toys are organized and encourage their children to follow their interests. If your daughter likes soccer, but the soccer balls are stocked in the boys' aisle, tell her, "It doesn't matter where the store manager put it, what's important is that it's what interests you."

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Q: Do girls go through more of a self-esteem crisis during early adolescence?

A: No! Teenage years are difficult -- for boys and girls. In one of the most respected meta-analyses of self-esteem studies, Janet Hyde, Ph.D., a psychology professor, and her colleagues at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, reviewed self-esteem tests of 44,394 males and 52,727 females conducted between 1987 and 1995. She also included data from three national longitudinal studies that followed some 50,000 high-schoolers through young adulthood. She found no evidence of a significant gender difference in self-esteem emerging in early adolescence. Still, worries about girls' self-esteem percolate through the media. In my own practice I've seen many parents who believe their daughters are at risk and therefore become hypervigilant of them.

Q: One of the results of the self-esteem scare was the big boom in single-sex classrooms. Do girls benefit from them?

A: Some do, some don't. Today many single-sex schools have embraced the idea that girls learn better in nurturing group settings, and the results have not always been positive. A 2001 study by the Ford Foundation looked at 12 charter schools in California that all had same-sex academies and found that they reinforced gender stereotypes. These schools have since disbanded. Of course, some of the new all-girl schools have super-duper teachers, small class sizes, and state-of-the-art teaching materials. Girls thrive there, but you could easily argue that any child -- boy or girl -- would do well in that environment.

Q: Are you saying there aren't any sex differences at all?

A: No, that would be silly. We know that women typically live longer than men and have different disease profiles. Alcoholism is more common among men, depression among women. But when you look closely at the average man and woman, the real story is how similar they are.

For instance, if you give males and females tests while they're having their brains scanned, different parts of their brains light up while they solve problems. But they come to the correct solutions in about the same time. So, although men and women may use their brains differently, what does this mean really? It's too early to know.

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Q: If there is so much evidence that males and females are similar, why are we so ready to believe otherwise?

A: Our society is in flux. Women are breaking barriers in the work world, while men are now more involved with their kids. These changes bring questions that nobody had to ask before, and the answers aren't easy. Many people still take comfort in simple answers, like "Stick with the old ways." But we need a new way of thinking about the sexes, one that reflects the fact that boys and girls today have far more abilities than the stereotypes would allow.

How to Bring Out the Best in Your Child

"When parents buy in to the idea of innate boy-girl differences, they limit both sexes," says Dr. Barnett. "If you assume your son won't play with dolls, you're telling him that nurturing isn't part of his future. If you don't encourage your daughter to play with building sets, you're not giving her the opportunity to develop spatial skills." In fact, Dr. Barnett says the one area in which boys consistently outperform girls is in 'mental rotation,' the ability to imagine how objects will appear when they're rotated in a two- or three-dimensional space -- an essential skill for careers like architecture. "If your daughter's math grades drop, you shouldn't accept it," she advises. "Ask her and the teacher why. If the guidance counselor isn't recommending your daughter take Algebra II next year, ask why not." Also talk to your daughter about careers that use math, like engineering, and point out real-life female role models.

Copyright © 2005. Reprinted with permission from the August 2004 issue of Child magazine.