“Beti, Tumse Na Ho Payega”: Why Girls Tend to Believe They Can’t Excel in Maths & Science

Gender

“Beti, Tumse Na Ho Payega”: Why Girls Tend to Believe They Can’t Excel in Maths & Science

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

If you, like me, found yourself grappling with the typical Indian education system growing up, you know how rigorous the culture was. There was an innate focus on mathematics and science; sports and physical education could be easily wiped off from the timetable in exchange for a lesson on trigonometry. Ideally, this would have accounted for excellent scores in mathematics and science for all students. Yet, the results had a different story to tell each time. On an average, the scores of girls in the classroom were lower than those of boys with the exception of a few toppers. As a child, the trend baffled me, but as an adult, the story of negligence, apathy, and great gender bias has become more clear.

It is no secret that the ratio of women-to-men in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) fields is low globally and the contributions of women in science and mathematics have been ignored and kept anonymous since the very beginning of its recorded history. In a book by Dr Namrata Gupta, titled: “Women in Science and Technology: Confronting Inequalities”, points out that women form only 10-15 per cent of STEM researchers and faculty members in the IITs, CSIR, AIIMS, and PGIs. In private R&D labs, there are very few women scientists.

When these statistics are thrown at you, it is easy to forget where the drop in numbers emerges from. It starts from childhood, when girls are constantly told that they are soft and not “cut out” for “hard-core” subjects such as maths and science. The trend continues in college and the misnomer “mathematics is for men” becomes a self- fulfilling prophecy. When throughout childhood a student is made to feel less than others, the chances of her choosing that subject as her college major or making a career in a related field is infinitesimal. Girls tend to lack confidence when it comes to STEM fields and constantly ask themselves if they are good enough, something that has been pointed out time and again in research papers.  This weak self-confidence may hold some women back as they count themselves out of pursuing prestigious roles in professions they believe they won’t excel in, despite having the skills to succeed, Harvard Business School Assistant Professor Katherine B Coffman told Forbes.

Often, the traditional teaching of mathematics focuses on being aggressive rather than receptive. The focus is on who can get the answer quicker rather than truly understanding where the concepts, theories, and formulae are coming from. Problem-solving is the skill essentially being tested but sadly, the way is not in focus. Instead it is all about that magic number which signifies that the problem has indeed been solved. The methods of approaching the problem aren’t always discussed or focused as much as they should. As a result, students, especially girls who already are less confident about the subject, tend to lose out.

To test my theory I conducted an experiment. I took under my wings my cousin, a class VIII student, who was facing difficulties in learning mathematics and considered the subject to be tough. So far in life she was subjected to a rather aggressive method of teaching. It is interesting to note that most of her mathematics teachers throughout school life had been men and it was her father who taught her mathematics and science while her mother taught her other subjects at home.

To forgo of the gendered perspectives ailing the field of Mathematics, in particular and STEM education, in general, it is essential to get back to the basics of teaching and what it means to be a good teacher.

The narrative for her so far had been very masculine and being a sensitive girl she wasn’t responding very well to that. I recognised the problem and started teaching her mathematics every day for one hour during her summer break. My approach was nurturing, sensitive and caring as opposed to the prevalent aggressiveness – as per gender stereotypes, it was predominantly feminine. The results were beyond my expectations.

Within a short span of one week, my cousin gained more confidence in a subject she had so far detested and asked me if the daily teaching hours could be extended by one more hour. Soon we had finished half of her yearly syllabus. We couldn’t continue as her summer break came to an end but after three months I received a phone call from her, vehemently thanking me for teaching her. Not only was she more confident now, undeterred by the hoard of male students screaming out answers, but she had developed an appreciation for the subject which her teachers could never imbibe in her. Her mother thanked me too and not just for the great upsurge in her marks but for instilling in her a love for the subject which was never there. By the end of the phone call I could not help but wish I had a teacher like me for a subject I shared a love/hate relationship with growing up.

To forgo of the gendered perspectives ailing the field of Mathematics, in particular and STEM education, in general, it is essential to get back to the basics of teaching and what it means to be a good teacher. The inherent male bias and “bro culture” of STEM fields have to go if we want to create gender-balanced professional arenas. When women break the glass ceiling and are represented across professional fields, it makes it easier for more women to join in.

If we are to create a space where future generations can truly spread their wings and boldly move into a brighter, gender neutral tomorrow then we can no longer allow archaic mindsets and teaching approaches to set the stage. It’s time to create a model of teaching STEM subjects which does not rely on aggression and instead aligns with the core values of empathy, kindness and compassion.

For, the truth is there’s nothing women can’t do. If they can lead countries out of a pandemic, what’s stopping them from mastering mathematics?

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