Why “Smart” Girls Don’t Do Math

Sometimes, usually about halfway through a stack of student papers, I close my eyes and dream of teaching without grades. Not without reading papers, or breaking out the colored pen to mark and comment, but without the one single letter that they look for first, and that takes the focus off the other hundreds of letters I have written to help them learn. My students want the A; not the A-, and certainly not the (gasp!) B, but an A, and the 4.0 GPA that comes with it. I think any college professor would agree that our otherwise excellent students are too focused on the grades, and it hurts them in the long run; now we’re finding out that this may be even more true for women, whose desire for good grades may be driving them away from science. And perhaps the worst thing was can do about this is insist to those young women that they’re smart enough to succeed.

To get girls to succeed at math, don't tell them they're smart. Photo by woodleywonderworks, used by Creative Commons license.

To get girls to succeed at math, don’t tell them they’re smart. Photo by woodleywonderworks, used by Creative Commons license.

The latest findings making the rounds suggest that men will continue on in Economics as a major even when they get a “low” grade (B’s or less), women’s likelihood of declaring that major start dropping dramatically the moment their grade slips below an A-. With even just a B+ at the end of the semester, they are off to different majors, possibly never to set foot inside an Economics class again.

There is a way to spin this finding to suggest that A’s are what encourage women to tackle this math-heavy discipline. Perhaps women only enrolled in an economics class to begin with to meet a general education requirement, with no intention of taking more than one course; the A’s may represent the discovery by some young women that they have a knack for this field, leading them to switch into this challenging major, while those with lower grades stick to their original plans. Young men might be following a different dynamic, drawn to economics initially because of a pervasive gender bias, and sticking with their original plans even when their grades aren’t the top of the class.

A more disturbing interpretation, building on some current psychological theories, is that men and women start out equally likely to major in economics, but women are driven away when they can’t get the A in that first course.

The peril may be that women have a fixed mindset about their intelligence, believing that their intelligence, including their mathematical ability, is what it is and isn’t going to change. It comes from their genes, perhaps, or their early experiences (thanks Mom and Dad!) but that was determined a long time ago and now their brains are set. Any low grade, then, is taken as a sign of “I’m not this good at this”…and since they don’t think they have much option of getting better, they seek greener pastures in other majors. Men, on the other hand, may be more likely to have a growth mindset, believing that they can get smarter: “I haven’t got it yet, but in the next course I will”.

And how do children develop these different ideas about whether they can grow their intelligence? By a few simple words, that parents and teachers might not even realize are so powerful: You’re so smart or You worked so hard. These words can complete change how children approach a task, as this video shows:


As Carol Dweck’s early research showed, children who had been told “You must be smart at these problems” after solving some puzzles were turned off by more challenging problems: they gave up on the challenging puzzles sooner, stated a preference for doing problems that were easy over problems that were hard, and blamed their own ability more than their effort for why they hadn’t done well. Children who had been told “You must have worked hard at these problems”, on the other hand, kept working at the hard problems longer (solving 1 or 2 more), chose problems that they would “learn a lot from, even if I won’t look so smart” over easy problems, and blamed an unsolved problem on insufficient effort not insufficient smarts.

It must seem so simple from inside the child’s head: She thinks I’m smart, I want her to keep thinking I’m smart, I should do well. Or, She likes it when I work hard, I’ll have to work really hard on those difficult problems, she’ll be really impressed. And so a fixed or growth mindset is born.

Although a child of any gender might develop that fixed mindset in response to being praised for their smarts, some scholars have proposed that girls may be more susceptible to a fixed mindset because they are more likely to be praised for being smart at a young age, because they develop just a little bit sooner, have an easier time in those early school years, and get praised for being smart. How else do you praise a child, when you want to let them know they have done well but they don’t seem to have worked hard? Boys, on the other hand, with their higher rates of ADHD diagnosis and slightly slower social development, may struggle their way through early years, with more effort than success to praise.

Years later, that early praise may have built a mindset that will drive girls away from science. Women who have been praised for being “smart” all through school, and who therefore have picked up a fixed mindset, may suffer a crisis of confidence when find a greater challenge in college and receive their first B or C. Worrying that everyone will find out and decide they aren’t smart after all, they leap toward classes where they can continue to get (relatively) effortless As. Goodbye, science; hello, any other major. Men, on the other hand, more confident about being praised for effort over performance, may be more comfortable struggling their way through difficult math and science courses, even if it means a lower GPA.

It seems that an entire generation of feminist encouragement in schools – you’re smart! you’re good at chemistry! you’re just as capable as the boys! – may have taken a wrong turn, discouraging rather than encouraging potential women scientists. Even a short story by one of my favorite authors, featuring a young girl with a great math talent who wants to become an engineer, is overshadowed now by the likelihood that it promotes a fixed mindset that girls who are good at math, not girls who struggle with it like me, have this potential career path open to them.

And now grading is even more of a struggle, because what do I write in my comments, hoping that students will read them? “Great idea!” has taken on sinister overtones, and “Nice insight” seems no better, but “I can tell you worked really hard on this” is damning with faint praise, at best, and potentially insulting at worse. Commenting to help students improve their mindsets as well as their content knowledge is no easy feat. With any luck, I will never slip up and call a student – or any young child I ever meet – “smart” again.

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