I've become accustomed to my daughter walking straight past her father and right to me when she needs help. He might be aimlessly perusing Netflix, and I may be 500 words into an essay that needs editing right now, but I'm her go-to. But not this time. She'd walked into the room with a piece of paper in hand and a declaration that she needed homework help, but she was walking toward her dad.
"Bring it over," I said. "I'll take a look."
"No," she said with a sigh. "It's math. You can't do it. Daddy has to."
I felt like I'd been punched in the gut. My 10-year-old is already aware that her parents have limitations in life, and I'm not afraid to talk to her about that. I've long felt it builds character in kids to have parents who are open about their flaws than it is to hide them away under a guise of perfection.
But this was different. This was a sign that I'm failing my tween daughter at a critical time in her development.
Countless studies have shown that our girls' self-esteem begins to nose dive in adolescence, including their belief that they are as good as — if not better than — their male peers. They've also shown that the barriers for girls in STEM begin now, in middle school.
Couple that with the fact that a mother is typically a girl's strongest role model for education, and my worry sounds less like that of an anxious mom and more of a real problem. If my daughter thinks I "can't do math" while her father can, what message am I sending her about women in STEM?
The thing is, I can do math, although up until a year or two ago, I was the one saying — in front of her no less — that I couldn't. That's because I'm sadly a typical woman in America, raised to believe that boys are better at the STEM subjects, that girls are better suited to the arts.
A study just last year by researchers at Florida State University found that teen boys tend to overestimate their math ability, while teen girls tend to underestimate theirs. And it's not just the girls themselves. A 2012 study from the University of Texas at Austin found high school teachers tend to rate girls' math abilities lower than their male peers, even when the girls' grades are higher, while a 2008 study published in the academic journal, Science, posits cultural biases against females in STEM are to blame for girls performing poorly on math tests.
In other words, girls are told at every turn that they suck at math, so often in fact that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Growing up with two parents whose jobs are in STEM, I was the black sheep of the family who would rather photograph or write about a list of numbers than tally them up. My mother often reminded me how different I was, remarking that I wasn't "mechanical" like my brother and father.
I believed her. Despite skipping a grade in elementary school and being selected for a special advanced high school program in the seventh grade, by the time I hit geometry and chemistry, I hit a wall. I was an English (or what they now call English language arts) kid. I wasn't a math and science kid. I couldn't DO this.
Of course, now I look back and realize that my 85 to 90 average in chemistry was one many of my peers would have been touting from the rooftops, while I never slipped out of the 90s in math class. I was smart at math and science. I just had to work harder at it than I did the arts. Isn't that true of most of us? We have some things we're better at than others, but it doesn't mean we're "bad" at said others?
I admit that it's only as my daughter, who at 3 reveled in engineering complicated towers of paper cups and at 10 boasts of her 100 average in math, has entered adolescence that I've forced myself to examine my own complicated relationship with STEM. I want her to feel like she can do anything, like she can be the next Silicon Valley genius, if that's what she wants.
Sitting with her a few months back, watching the Netflix tween girl-focused STEM-heavy show Project Mc2 (which is part of the streaming service's partnership with the White House to break down gender stereotypes, by the way), I tried to talk up the girls on screen and how awesome they were, to engage her in a conversation about how they used math and science and were still the kinds of girls she'd want to hang out with. I love the show for the role models it's providing to our girls, but what about the most important role model of all? Us?
How can they have faith in their abilities, if we don't have faith in our own? It might be too late for many women to regain the confidence they had in themselves before they hit adolescence, but it's not too late for our daughters.
For my part, I've vowed to stop making self-deprecating jokes about myself as a "writer who can't do math," to stop asking my husband to figure out the tip on a restaurant check when I could do it just as easily myself, and instead shoo him away from her homework and answer the questions.
How about you?
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