Women and Math: Why We Need to Create Greater Equity, Access, and Support

One of the major efforts of The White House Council on Women and Girls is to engage girls in STEM, and I endorse the effort. As Michelle Obama has noted, “If we’re going to out-innovate and out-educate the rest of the world, then we have to open doors to everyone. We need all hands on deck. And that means clearing hurdles for women and girls as they navigate careers in science, technology, engineering and math.”

While it is true that a math degree can lead to a lucrative career, I believe that involving girls and young women in math is a path to empowerment in and of itself. One of the ways to break down mental barriers is to help girls experience “Aha!” math moments. It is a feeling of empowerment and confidence that has influence far beyond the math classroom. How can we, as learning guardians, help girls and young women have that experience by overcoming erroneous beliefs and stereotyping, negative cultural pressures, and restricted access, so that they can take their place at the STEM table?

Shift outmoded thinking.

Everywhere in the world, girls and young women struggle with math and science. To find out why, Carol S. Dweck undertook a research study entitled, “Is math a gift? Beliefs that put females at risk.” Dweck examined why more of our brightest girls and young women are not pursuing careers in math and science. She found two major areas of concern. First, it appears that rather than a gender difference in math ability, at least part of the difference in math learning is a dissimilarity in the way genders cope with setbacks and confusion. Also, she explored the stereotypical belief that math aptitude is a “gift” or innate ability that one either has or doesn’t have. This impression leads girls to think that math cannot be learned and that “mistakes” are unconditional, thus bringing them a sense of discouragement rather than a feeling of determination. But nothing is further from the truth, which is why these two beliefs can be trumped by addressing them directly—by letting our girls know that the often “messy” processes of math discovery are not only to be expected, but should be welcomed and played with. By encouraging and actively supporting the development of math skills, our female math students can overcome limiting stereotypes and become fearless learners.

The intense cultural pressures on girls to distance themselves from math are often centered on the deceptive idea that “guys don’t like girls who like math.” In fact, many girls in elementary school love math and excel—that is until middle school, when they typically lose interest and fall behind.

While it is true that a math degree can lead to a lucrative career, I believe that involving girls and young women in math is a path to empowerment in and of itself.

It is up to the learning guardians of female students to assist these girls in understanding that there is no truth to the idea that being a skilled mathematician makes them a socially unacceptable “nerd,” or that math is “boring.” We need to support and engage our girls, particularly during the critical middle school years. A wonderful way to do that is by using ed-tech, which leverages the digital devices and experiences young people love, to encourage exploration and self-determination in their learning.

The U.S. Department of Education has found that girls “who have a strong self-concept regarding their abilities in math or science are more likely to choose and perform well in elective math and science courses and to select math and science-related college majors and careers … improving girls’ beliefs about their abilities could alter their choices and performance … particularly as they move out of elementary school and into middle and high school.”

The antidote is the creation of a culture of female math achievement so our female students can make an active choice about their futures. When we help girls understand that mathematics is a field that is actually about creativity, finding relationships, understanding patterns, and making sense of the world, and that what they learn applies to many different kinds of jobs and aspects of life, it is more likely that they will learn to recognize their own capabilities and expand them—and seize the opportunity to excel.

Provide powerful role models.

We can also provide role models—like the women who are making math and education history right now—so girls can see how exciting math and learning can be, and that many times the thrill comes from creating order from confusion and rising to challenges.

Maryam Mirzakhani

Mirzakhani is the first woman to win the Field Medal. Photo: Stanford.edu

Tehran-born Maryam Mirzakhani is the first female winner of the Field Medal (often called the Nobel Prize of mathematics). When asked why she decided to pursue math, she said, “It is fun—it’s like solving a puzzle or connecting the dots in a detective case.” She has a great sense of exhilaration about work and life, and is a well-rounded individual who is a player on the world stage, a professor at Stanford, a wife, and a mother. In other words, she is a great role model for female math students.

Mae C. Jemison

Jemison is an astronaut and a medical doctor. Photo: Biography.com

Role models that can help girls and young women aim high must include female astronauts in the U.S. space program—pioneers whose mental and physical achievements can inspire us all. The PBS series, Makers: Women Who Make America features Women in Space, which covers the very first woman to pilot a spacecraft to Sally Ride to Mae C. Jemison (the first woman of color astronaut) to the next generation of women engineers, mathematicians, and astronauts who continue to lead us forward into new territory.

Use ed-tech to open opportunity and access.

Girls and young women who are math students today should not have to overcome obstacles to engage in STEM. That is why I am a passionate proponent of ed-tech as a powerful tool that can be used to direct one’s own learning, build confidence, and provide equity and access to quality content for disenfranchised learners.

The role of learning technologies should be to support, empower, and engage all learners—including girls and minority students—who need to take full advantage of next-generation learning experiences like adaptive learning. When we help all students reach their full learning potential, it is a win for everyone. At DreamBox, we go one step further by providing every lesson in Spanish with every subscription to ensure English Language Learners can take advantage of this transformative technology. We want all students to gain a conceptual understanding of mathematics and develop the self-confidence they need to do more, not just in math but in all subjects. To effectively close the equity gap, we want every child to be well equipped to embrace their own interests, particularly in STEM-related careers. Another key component of closing that gap is involving the community and providing ease of use and accessibility, so students can learn both inside and outside of the classroom, anytime, anywhere—and at their own pace and level.

We want to encourage learners to persist as they move forward and inspire them to get excited about math. When kids win, communities win. When communities win, we all win. It’s simple—and very powerful.

Jessie Woolley-Wilson

Jessie Woolley-Wilson

Jessie Woolley-Wilson is President and CEO of DreamBox Learning®, Inc. Before joining DreamBox, Woolley-Wilson was President of Blackboard’s K–12 Group and President of LeapFrog SchoolHouse. She also held leadership positions at collegeboard.com, the interactive division of the College Board, and at Kaplan, the leading test preparation company in the U.S. She serves on the boards of several educational organizations including the International Association for K–12 Online Learning (iNACOL), Camelot Education, and the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. Locally, she serves on the boards of Island Wood, an environmental learning center that connects children to the outdoors, and Seattle Venture Partners International. She has also served as a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Technology and Education, and has presented at TEDx Rainier, SXSWedu, and DENT. Wooley-Wilson was awarded the 2015 Executive Excellence Award in the CEO of the Year category by Seattle Business magazine; she was on the Forbes “Impact 15″ list for being a disruptor of education; and she was honored as a “Woman of Influence” by Puget Sound Business Journal.
Jessie Woolley-Wilson

Latest posts by Jessie Woolley-Wilson (see all)