Sometimes it takes a photo to picture clearly what’s been there all along. (We’re so used to being conscious about gender equality that I had a hard time finding a photo to publish that shows the gender ratio that I saw in a Gifted and Talented (GT) math class photo.)
After hating math for years, our daughter was super excited about her geometry class project, designing tiny houses for a local homeless community. The class took a field trip to the community to kick off this project based learning. Her teacher sent a photo of the GT (gifted and talented) math class on it.
That was when I found out my daughter’s GT math class was 80% boys!
I was shocked to see that in a class of twenty, there were only four girls.
I shouldn’t have been.
Girls in STEM
There are now fewer women starting STEM careers than there were 20-30 years ago. The reasons are unclear. But data shows that while girls are interested in math and science in elementary school, that interest drops off by the time they get to high school.
When I think about how that relates to our own experiences, I can’t help but think how easy it was to get our son into GT and on the advanced math track. But when it came to our daughters, we had to fight and persist for years.
Girls start missing out young
It started with our first daughter in elementary school, when she repeatedly didn’t test high enough to be admitted to our school’s GT program.
I was aware that there were several issues that could favor boys over girls when it came to the GT program. But we didn’t push the issue for several reasons. One reason was that our daughter didn’t want to be in the GT class for her grade – It was all boys.
Another was that in our district, GT classes often meant an increased homework load. I’ve been doing a lot of research about heavy workloads. The benefits are small, and not worth the lack of sleep.
And another was that I really hate to blame something like gender inequality for me or my children. It sound like an excuse for not making the grade.
We didn’t realize that in our school district, GT is the clearest path to advanced math classes. As time went on, our daughters started missing out on opportunities our son had, like advanced math classes.
So we started pushing to get our girls into GT and the advanced math classes. Even though our daughters sometimes didn’t think it was necessary. Three years ago my youngest daughter would have told you she did not like math. She hated math! She really would rather I just leave her math class alone. She didn’t think she was “good” at math.
Advanced and GT classes
The one GT geometry class was the only one that did the architecture project. If my daughter hadn’t been in GT Geometry, she wouldn’t have gotten to do the project that was the highlight of her academic year. Our district is trying to make opportunities in project based learning, and this has been the best project by far. If we hadn’t pushed to get our daughter admitted to advanced math classes, she would have missed out.
And now that our daughter is in the advanced class, her math grades are no different from her brother’s. And she’s considering architecture, a career that is math intensive. (At the end of the year, she received the teacher award in both her GT Geometry class and Engineering I class. Yes, that is something we bring her attention to when she still says she’s not good at math.)
That old-fashioned idea, boys are better at math
Thirty years ago, I was thoroughly trouncing all the boys at mental math competitions and making the highest grade as the only girl in a physics class of sixteen boys. I thought gender equality in math and science as a question of intelligence was no longer an issue. The numbers weren’t there yet, but I thought at least the attitudes had changed.
But I’ve been surprised by the perceptions of kids in our daughter’s classes.
Okay, I wasn’t surprised when a fourth grade boy told one daughter that, because he was in GT, he was better at math than she was. He was a 10-year-old boy, after all. (Ha! There’s some more gender bias. But that thought did make it easier for me, as a mom, to forgive him for trying to put down my daughter.) Luckily, my daughter had just learned a math trick and held her own.
But I have been surprised by the attitudes of kids in our high school, both boys and girls. We live in an area with lots of technology employment. In spite of that, when students in my daughter’s high school find out she’s in Engineering I, they always scoff at her being in a “boys class.” You would think they would have grown out of that! (In their defense, the engineering classes at our high school are at least 80% boys, just like math. Kids call it like it is.)
Should we blame gender inequality, or is that just yelling “Wolf!”
My reluctance to blame gender inequality for our daughter not getting into the GT program was part of the reason I didn’t push her admission at the start. But over the last few years, I have been intrigued with new research that shows subtle ways we all discriminate. It’s even more interesting when it aligns with my daughters’ experiences.
Because I wasn’t willing to stand up for them earlier, it is now my daughters who have to stand up for themselves in their math classes every day. But that does have its benefits, so that’s not the worst part.
The worst part is that most girls don’t even get the chance to stand up for themselves.
When I look at that GT class photo of almost all boys, I don’t see the absence of girls who are good at math. I see the absence of girls who had someone to fight for them. To fight for the options they didn’t know they would want in the future.
I have brought this to the attention of our school district administrators. Most are supportive. But some think there is absolutely no bias in our Gifted and Talented Program’s assessment process.
Is gender equality still an issue in schools? The comments my daughters hear show that is is. Boys are better at math. Engineering is only for boys. But more definitively, you can see it in the numbers.
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