If someone told you to be quiet and just look pretty, you’d probably lash back with a scathing response or at least give him or her one serious stink eye. But that’s exactly the message a slew of recent t-shirts aimed at young girls are conveying.
With t-shirt slogans ranging from JC Penney’s “I’m too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me” to Forever 21’s “Allergic to Algebra” and David & Goliath’s “I'm too pretty to do math," young girls are being told that they’re better off staring at a mirror than a textbook.
Because of vitriol from parents, JC Penney issued an apology and pulled the controversial t-shirt from store shelves. You would think that Forever 21 and David & Goliath (still for sale, here) would learn from JC Penney’s mistake by not printing similar t-shirts to begin with, but no such luck.
However, one could argue that we’re taking these t-shirts way too seriously and are selling kids and teens short—that they see this confrontational fashion trend as ironic and playful rather than as a putdown. “Kids know that math is supposed to be hard, and so they are playing with the irony of it,” says Art Markman, Ph.D., YouBeauty Psychology Advisor. “I don't think that kids are really taking these messages seriously on the surface. We have to recognize that pre-teens and teens have a developing sense of irony.”
That said, Markman notes these t-shirts still send a dangerous message that can—consciously or not—influence girls’ mindsets. He points out the research on mindset conducted by Carol Dweck, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Stanford University, and how you can treat almost anything in life as either a talent or a skill. A talent is something you have or you don't, while a skill is something you can learn and develop.
“The problem is that these shirts tend to treat both being pretty and being smart as a talent rather than a skill,” says Markman. “When you think something (like math ability) is a talent, then you do it until it gets hard. At that point, you figure that it has gone beyond your talents and you give up. When you treat something as a skill, then when it gets hard, you treat that as a signal that you need to put in more effort, and so you work harder.”
Markman adds, “If these shirts send the implicit message that math is a talent rather than a skill, then the danger is that even if kids treat this as an ironic message on the surface, it will reinforce the belief that math is a talent and that will have a negative effect on their math performance down the line.”
What’s more, these shirts subliminally reinforce the widespread and false stereotype that girls are worse at math than boys. “The problem with this stereotype is that it can lead to 'stereotype threat,' which is the tendency for people to under-perform on tests that evaluate their abilities in conditions where they have a negative self-relevant stereotype,” explains Markman. “So girls may do more poorly on math tests just because of the stereotype itself. These stereotype threat effects are hard to get around. Again, even though the message is meant ironically, reinforcing the cultural belief that girls are bad at math can hurt their performance on math tests down the line.”
Studies show that culture—not biology—is primarily responsible for the gender gap in math, according to research conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The research strongly suggests that gender differences in math stem from sociocultural factors—namely, whether girls and young women are discouraged or encouraged to pursue the skills required to master math.
Teachers also influence girls’ confidence in learning mathematics. Researchers at the University of Chicago found that if a female teacher is anxious about math, that anxiety gets passed down to girls and undermines their performance—but not for the boys. In other words, falling for the stereotype that girls are bad at math becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. "Having a highly math-anxious female teacher may push girls to confirm the stereotype that they are not as good as boys at math, which in turn, affects girls' math achievement," said Sian Beilock, lead author of the study and an associate professor in psychology and the Committee on Education at the University of Chicago.
The good news is that bolstering young girls’ confidence in math is as easy as 2 + 2: It all comes down to encouragement. Janet Mertz, Ph.D., a UW-Madison professor of oncology and one of the study authors that found the gender gap in math is cultural and not biological, said in a statement: "If you provide females with more educational opportunities and more job opportunities in fields that require advanced knowledge of math, you're going to find more women learning and performing very well in mathematics."
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