Math is for Girls

Much like Susan in our text, I can’t “do math.” I legitimately use my fingers for simple equations and need to use a paper and pencil or a calculator for anything more difficult than basic math facts. Luckily, Penn State urges their students to reach higher and encourages (forces) psychology students to take a course in statistics! So how does one student like myself get through her first statistics class after previously just getting by in a non-credit brush-up community college math class? Let’s find out.

Throughout elementary school and middle school, I took the most rigorous courses in my grade level including math. I had always done well in all academic areas and felt good about going to school, taking tests, and learning all I could about everything. Through my last year or so of middle school things began to change. I got older and wanted to do things with friends that cost money. My new step-dad wanted me to like him, so he started rewarding me for good grades. $50 for every A, $20 for a B, and nothing else for any other grade. Looking back, although I had tons of cash, I realize that this type of reward system made me lose much of my intrinsic motivation to do well in school. The truth is that math did become more difficult for me as I entered high school, but nothing that I couldn’t have done well in if I tried. But because of the overjustification effect, or losing my motivation to push myself (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012), I stopped overachieving and took the easy way out—still doing well enough to earn the cash but not pushing myself to my fullest potential. I got lazy.

Additionally, I was also the product of a society in which we tell girls that “math is for boys” and it was acceptable to be “bad at math” because everyone with a pony tail should be. In terms of self-determination theory, I fell prey to societal gender norms and didn’t feel like I could be, or should be, different (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012). But school wasn’t the only place gender norms were taught. “We’re just better speakers. And writers. And helpers!” was my mother’s mantra when I would bring home a dismal math grade. My parents didn’t question why my math grades plummeted because it was expected and acceptable. So I continued on.

At this point, my academic self-concept was shoddy at best, even though I still maintained fairly decent grades in other subjects. I hated going to school and my belief that I’m going to test horribly helped to perpetuate the self-fulfilling prophecy that was my downward spiral of an academic career. The most distressing obstacle I faced was that since I was 8-years-old I had my heart set on being a Marine Biologist. But guess what subject you need to be strong in to become a scientist? You guessed it! Math. I threw away my dream (even though I do extremely well in science-based courses) and decided that I should become a helper, because that’s what girls who can’t do math do.

So here I am, a psychology student at Penn State, who yet again is faced with the dreaded numbers game. I just wanted to be a helper. Nevertheless, I persisted (yep, I went there), and prepared myself to do terrible in my class. Then it hit me! Why not prepare myself to do well in the class? Clearly anyone else with a PSU degree has gotten through statistics, and I’m a smart girl. I thought to myself, I can do this! I took a risky move, skipping over Intro to Stat and jumping head first into Elementary Statistics (yes, that’s a 200 level statistics course for someone who doesn’t “do math”). More importantly, I took an objective look at myself. I recognized that I’ve self-handicapped, or found a way to make excuses for my failures, oftentimes in my past (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012). I’ve waited until it was past my bedtime to work on homework, excusing my bad grades because I was “too tired.” I’ve made other class deadlines more important than math because “I’ll actually use this in real life.”  I pledged not to do that anymore. Instead, after work I asked my parents to watch my daughter so I could devote at least an hour every evening to studying. I took initiative and reached out to a tutor early. When the tutoring didn’t go well, I asked my professor to meet with me every Thursday because I still wasn’t understanding. I kept at it, and my hard work payed off. I finished the class with an A! Just kidding. I got a C+ and failed all of my proctored exams, but I did well enough on my homework assignments (with my professors help) to get the statistics credit I need to graduate.

Even though math really isn’t my strongest subject, I do know that I am tenacious and goal-oriented and, with enough hard work, can succeed in any situation that comes my way. Which is good, because I’m taking my last math class this semester and can really use the pep talk!





Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., and Coutts, L. M. (Eds.) (2012). Applied Social Psychology: Understanding and Addressing Social and Practical Problems (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications


  1. Kristen,

    I’ve heard of that study too and it’s heartbreaking. I like that schools are trying to encourage girls to try STEM classes. I read somewhere that only around 4% of STEM graduates are female which is crazy. If we can get more females into other types of jobs (and encourage males to take typically “female” jobs if they want to!) I think we can make a big difference in the wage gap.

    My daughter is in elementary school now and my parents pay her for her grades as well which really bothers me. She expects money every time she gets a report card! She brought her’s home and asked me, “what do I get?” and I said, “a high five because it looks like you’ve been working really hard!” I refuse to give her monetary or other similar rewards for her grades and instead I explain to her how her trying hard and doing well in school allows her to be able to work toward her goals (right now she wants to be either an art teacher or a businesswoman selling bacon at twice what it’s worth for a “nice profit”…don’t ask). She gets annoyed with me but I know I’m doing what’s best for her.

  2. I found your post really interesting, especially your relation of being bad at math to being a girl! I also think it’s interesting that whether it was intentional for you to want to be a “helper” or whether your mom had primed you for that type of thinking, that is what you want to do! It’s amazing how the things our parents do, out of love, can change our perception of our world. For example, your dad offering to pay you cash for your good grades taking away your intrinsic motivation is something I can really relate to! I remember my dad told me if I got all straight A’s he would get me a surprise I really wanted. I worked all semester dreaming of what my surprise could be and when it came time to pay up, he got me a bike. It wasn’t that I didn’t love the bike or I didn’t even want a bike, but I had a bike and didn’t make much time for it either way. I had spent so much time imagining what life would be like if I had reached this milestone, instead of the process, that the next semester came and I had almost no motivation to get good grades. I thought to myself, if all I am going to get out of this is a bike (which did not live up to the fantasies my 8th grade self had created), then maybe I don’t need to work that hard at it. Luckily, I had an epiphany like you did and learned how to prepare myself for success and not limit myself to the end result. I had to consciously think of things I liked about getting good grades (mostly not having the anxiety of missing or failing assignments) and focus on those in the moment I was doing them!

    Also, there is a study I’ve read where women and men were given a math test and half the students were told to indicate their sex at the beginning of the test by checking male or female while the other half were not. Interestingly, the women who were reminded of their gender before taking the test scored lower than the woman who were not reminded! This factor did not negatively affect the mens’ scores which would indicate that being a woman has a negative connotation with math scores, as evidenced by your mother’s (and maybe your) opinions!

    Overall, I think it’s great you worked hard and realized that if everyone who had a degree had to do it, you could to! Good luck on your future endeavors at PSU and beyond!

    -Kristen Jezek

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