In July of 1992, Barbie found her voice. The latest incarnation of Mattel’s iconic doll came programmed with 4 phrases, randomly selected from over 170 different options. With all of those possibilities, what did Barbie have to say? Mostly… vapid drivel. “Let’s go shopping!” “Will we ever have enough clothes?” and “Do you have a crush on anyone?” were all among Teen Talk Barbie’s slogans. None, however, caused as much of an uproar as Barbie’s complaint that “Math class is tough!” Feminists cried foul. The idea that girls can’t excel in math class was and still is considered an outdated and sexist stereotype. After all, this is the 21st century, and women can excel in math just as easily as men. But if that’s the case, why do so many women, Barbie included, shy away from STEM fields?
As of 2010, fewer than 10%. A 2011 report found that only 1 in 7 engineers is female. Women receive only 20% of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in computer science, despite receiving 60% of degrees overall, and Women hold only 27% of computer science jobs and less than 25% of jobs in all STEM fields despite making up half of the work force. In the United States, boys on average outscore girls in every single math or science AP test. Looking at these disparities, it may begin to seem like Barbie was on to something. Is math class really just “tougher” for women?
At the core of the question is the age-old debate of nature vs. nurture; that is, do women face a predisposition for poor performance in STEM fields, or has societal conditioning led them to believe that STEM fields are a strictly masculine pursuit? Proponents of nature believe that the former holds true – that the gender gap in STEM is a result of the physical differences hardwired into our brains.
Regardless of whether one accepts that explanation, the differences in male and female cognition are undeniable. It’s a well established fact within the scientific community that there are structural differences in the brains of each gender, and that male brains tend to lend themselves more towards spacial awareness, and females’ towards verbal skills. These differences, scientists believe, are ingrained even prior to our birth. Hormones, it seems, play a key role in shaping a fetus’s developing brain, and different levels of testosterone will lead to either more or less masculine cognitive traits. If the “nature” hypothesis is correct, then math and science simply require girls to think in a way that runs counter to their nature, which leads to their weaker performance.
Only, the evidence doesn’t support that claim. Young girls actually outperform boys across the boards in school, including math and science classes all throughout grade school. The trend of boys outperforming girls occurs only in high school, but we know that cognitive differences begin at birth, and not at puberty. Even if mathematic or scientific thinking doesn’t come as naturally to young girls, the disparity in aptitude hasn’t formed enough of a hindrance to prevent academic success. Furthermore, the gender differences found in brain structure don’t actually tell for certain that females are naturally worse at math.
So if nature isn’t holding women back, what is? More and more evidence is accumulating to support the notion that an aversion to math is more a product of a girl’s “nurture,” or a combination of her upbringing and societal pressures. For evidence of this phenomenon, we simply have to search outside our borders. In countries other than the United States, based on the Program for International Student Assessment, the gender gap significantly decreases. In science in particular, there is no measurable gender gap internationally. Furthermore, in a number of nations, including Finland, Greece, and Poland, girls actually outperform boys in both math and science. All this evidence suggests that cultural cues such as a lack of female role models and gender stereotyping are more influential than any hardwired cognitive difference. Cultural cues, in the form of, say, a doll marketed as a role model and an ideal, whining that math is just too hard.
Mattel swiftly apologized for the incident and soon Teen Talk Barbie went from 170 preprogrammed phrases to 169. The dolls weren’t recalled, but free replacements were offered to anyone with a doll that uttered the offending phrase. Amends were made, people moved on, and Barbie maintained her monopoly over the fashion doll market. The Teen Talk Barbie fiasco was over 20 years ago now. Judging by the numbers, though, we haven’t made much progress. Still, the collective outcry against Barbie’s gaffe can serve as inspiration that change remains possible. There’s a wealth of untapped talent in the female workforce – brilliant minds that could drive innovation across the all STEM fields – and we can access it, but to do so, we must affirm our girls. We can teach them that even when “math class is tough,” they’re tougher.