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Culture Discouraging Girls From Excelling at Math

The video is a documentary coverage of an all-girl math contest which is held annually in the United States. The contest, held at the New York University, presents new perspectives on some of the reasons why math seems to be a male-dominated subject. Similar competitions held before for both genders have resulted in boys predominantly emerging at the top. This is what prompted the need to have an all-girl competition so that girls could also be noticed. However, the video also revealed that there may be a deeper cause for the apparent differences in performance in math, between boys and girls. The video can thus be used to provide valuable information on a study of the impact of culture on the performance of girls in math and other science related subjects.

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Among the major points highlighted in the video is that there is a higher number of boys who take up math as a subject compared to boys. These will thus, statistically and proportionately, translate into more boys emerging at the top. However, further studies still indicated that in a situation whereby the number of boys is the same as that of girls, boys still emerge at the top. In an average competition, the number of boys performing better than girls is at a 3 to 1 ratio (Beaton, Tougas, Rinfret, Huard & Delisle, 2007). A professor at MIT observed that this number tripled when only the statistics of the top performing students were considered. Such a trend points to a deeper lying issue being the cause of the apparent poor performance in math by girls. Culturally, girls have been associated with the home-based and relational aspects of society such as the taking care of children and homes. Boys on the other hand have always been raised up to be the bread winners and industrial workers in society.

This cultural trend has been reflected in the type of subjects that girls tend to excel in. While boys perform better in math and the sciences, the girls lift the mantle in the languages and humanities. The education system that is prevalent in the 20th and 21st centuries is however one that elevates the math and the science subjects. This is understandably the case because of the value of such subjects in economic development. Furthermore, the formal education systems in the UK and the U.S. have been designed to cater for and respond to the economic needs of the respective countries (Ceci, Williams & Barnett, 2009). Therefore, subjects such as humanities and the arts receive less attention and are regarded as less important. Ironically, these are the subjects that girls tend to do well in.

The attempt to promote and encourage girls’ participation in math should therefore put such factors into consideration. The video has simply outlined one approach, which is to have an all-girl math contest. But this is a narrow-scoped approach because the emphasis on math should be regarded in a wholesome manner. Other factors, such as culture, which have contributed to poor participation and performance by girls, ought to be considered. It is not enough to have girls being good at math. It is also essential to consider why girls ought to be good at math. Is the move aimed at making girls academically equivalent to boys or will this competitiveness translate into corporate and professional competitiveness for women in the job market?

An important aspect of the role of women in society also emerged from the video. It was noted that, even though the girls had come together to compete for a prize of $25,000, they did not display much rivalry. There was a strong sense of comradeship among the girls. This can serve as a pointer to a psychological angle to the debate. Girls are more wired to be relational compared to boys (Heilman & Okimoto, 2007). This could also be the reason why they tend to perform better in the humanities and other sociological subjects. A control study ought to be set up whereby an all-boy math competition is organized and their relationship during the competition is monitored. This also indicates that even though the girls had primarily attended the competition as an effort to promote interest in math among girls, they were actually revealing the opposite trait. It seemed less significant to them whether or not they won the competition.

Finally, the fact that girls who are good at math are subject to negative stereotypes was also mentioned in the video. This indicates that, even though girls may be motivated to perform well in an all-girl environment, a similar scenario would be difficult to achieve in the normal world. Culture is to be blamed for this conceptualization of girls. Girls who are even remotely good in math and science subjects are regarded as nerdy and are ostracized in the normal childhood environment. This could also be the reason why girls tend to perform poorly in math. The problem seems to be a synergy of many cultural factors and cannot be solved by simply getting more girls to do math or perform better. The hope and vision expressed at the end of the clip is that there would be a day when an all-girls math contest will no longer be needed. A closer examination reveals that perhaps it was never needed in the first place.


  1. Beaton, A., F. Tougas, N. Rinfret, N. Huard & M. N. Delisle. (2007). “Strength in numbers? Women and mathematics.” European Journal of Psychology of Education, 22(1), 291-306.
  2. Ceci, S. J., W. M. Williams & S. M., Barnett. (2009). “Women’s underrepresentation in science: Sociocultural and biological considerations.” Psychological Bulletin, 135(2), 218–61.
  3. Heilman, M. E., & T. G., Okimoto. (2007). “Why are women penalized for success at male tasks? The implied communality deficit.” Journal of Applied Psychology, 92(1), 81–92.

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