Math and the Patriarchy

Photo by Wanda Dechant via Flickr
Photo by Wanda Dechant via Flickr

The subject came about when she had uttered the words, “boys are just better at math.” My eyes metaphorically rolled so far back into my head that they could have fallen back into my throat.

I tried to reason with her in the most polite way possible. “I think a lot of it has to do with the different ways in we teach boys and girls, how society treats boys and girls differently, and how this notion of ‘boys are just better at math, and girls are just better at literature and language,’ has been subtly indoctrinated into the minds of the masses throughout all of time and has affected the way that girls see themselves in the classroom.” 

She proceeded by eagerly defending her stance by supporting her argument with personal references, all the while forgetting that her experience was not everyone else’s, and that her own experiences involving math in the classroom wasn’t even representative of the small little town that she had grew up in, let alone the entire nation.

But she did manage to mention a fact that boys think more spatially and girls think more verbally, which is correct, according to research by (Linn & Petersen, 1985; Voyer et al., 1995), which as recorded findings suggesting that boys consistently outscore girls in cognitive skills seen in the area of spatial skills and specifically on measures of mental rotation.

What society has seen after this type of publication of these findings is a difference in the confident level in the subjects of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) between the two genders at an earlier age, and a decreasing disproportion of women in the STEMs and slightly lower scores and largely lower pay in those fields there after.

Another source through which stereotypes may affect beliefs is shown by Jacobs (1991), who found that mothers who endorsed a male-math stereotype underestimated their daughters’ ability in math. These perceptions were shown to be particularly important for a child’s confidence because a child’s self-evaluation of academic competency appears to be more strongly related to their parents’ appraisals of their academic ability than to their actual academic performance. (AAUW, 2010).

According to Irwing (2004), there is obviously no “smarter sex.” Spatial skills can also be taught to girls; however, society continues to create a negative environment for girls surrounding STEM instead of encouraging them to pursue a career in the field.

Research, including Clay, et al. (2005), has shown that the majority of girls’ confidence levels begin to decrease by puberty or middle adolescence. Their self-confidence in STEM and sports, their body image, and their self-esteem takes a huge dive after years of people in society suggesting to them that being a girl is like losing the lottery in the genetics game. Even the Always super bowl commercial #LikeAGirl highlighted this fact, and shows how detrimental it can be to girls.


Toys made specifically for boys and specifically for girls is where everything begins. Society yells at boys when they pick up baby dolls and dresses, and we look at girls funny when they want to play with racecars and plastic builder’s tools. In modern western society, blue is for boys and pink is for girls and any swapping of the gender norms scares the society.

In school, society makes it known that girls don’t belong in the STEM field. They place boys in to woodshop and drafting classes, and they place girls in home economic classes. They subconsciously tell the boys that they will be better at math and science, and they tell the girls that they will be better at reading and writing, even if that’s not the case for everyone.

The environments surrounding girls continues the stereotype that girls can’t excel in the STEM subjects, and the patriarchal cultural environment tells boys that they are unable to be nurturing, caring, or have the ability to be left alone with their own children. But it can end right here and now. We can change all of this by helping each other change the cultural environment. We, as educated individuals, need to encourage the destruction of rigid traditional gender roles by educating each other about gender equality, eliminating gendered speech and stereotypes, and encouraging kids of all genders in every subject.


Clay, D., Vignoles, V., & Dittmar, H. (2005). Body Image And Self-Esteem Among Adolescent Girls: Testing The Influence Of Sociocultural Factors. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 451-477.

Irwing, Paul and Lynna, Richard. (2004). Sex differences on the progressive matrices: A meta-analysis. Intelligence. 32(5): 481–98

Jacobs, Janis E. (1991). “Influence of Gender Stereotypes on Parent and Child Mathematics Attitudes.” Journal of Educational Psychology, 83(4): 518.

Linn, M. C., & Petersen, A. C. (1985). Emergence and characterization of sex differences in spatial ability: A meta-analysis. Child Development, 56(6), 1479–98.

Voyer, D., Voyer, S., & Bryden, M. P. (1995). Magnitude of sex differences in spatial abilities: A meta-analysis and consideration of critical variables. Psychological Bulletin, 117(2), 250–70.

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