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Sep 10, 2008

Even as women prove they are at least as good at math as men, a reincarnated Winnie Cooper says we should try something different.

By Anna-Katarina Gravgaard

As president of Harvard University, Lawrence Summers made messy headlines several years ago when he mused aloud that there are inherent differences in the aptitude of men and women in the hard sciences. Students and faculty members erupted in protest, and eventually Summers lost his job, but the assertion of that old stereotype remained without much of an answer. That is, until this summer.
A study published in the August issue of Science reports that girls perform every bit as well as boys on standardized math and science tests. Mining data from the SATs as well as seven million tests administered as part of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, a team of researchers from the University of California, Berkley and the University of Wisconsin found no differences attributable to gender through the eleventh grade.
Eighteen years ago, the study’s chief author, psychology professor Janet Hyde, conducted research that found boys perform distinctly better than girls on such tests. She attributes the change to “girls’ course-taking habits,” she says. “Back when I did the 1990 study, girls did not take as many advanced math courses in high school as boys did. That gap has closed over the years.”
Guess what? “To do well in performance on these math tests,” Hyde says, “you have to take the class.”
To go further than that you actually have to love the subject, and among those who have made it their life’s work to bring more girls to that higher level of commitment to math is a most unlikely advocate: Danica McKellar, 33, who starred as Winnie Cooper in “The Wonder Years.” McKellar now has two math books for girls on the New York Times list of bestselling children’s books: Math Doesn’t Suck: How to Survive Middle-School Math without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail and the just-released Kiss My Math: Showing Pre-Algebra Who’s Boss.
“My books look a lot more like teen magazines than math books,” says McKellar, whose work begins with a simple premise, that “there is no contradiction between being good at math, being smart and being girlie.”
McKellar sets a good example. After leaving “The Wonder Years” in 1993, she enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles and graduated summa cum laude—as a math major—in 1998. During her studies she helped to develop a concept in statistical mechanics that is now known as the Chayes-McKellar-Winn theorem.
Two years after graduation, she was called to testify before a Congressional subcommittee about how to draw more women into the sciences and math. (Women still make up only 15 percent of doctoral candidates in these subjects.) “They were looking for more money for [college] scholarships to encourage young women to go into science careers,” McKellar says.
She told them to aim lower: “The problem starts in middle school. By college, if they are not interested in math, it is too late.”
Her testimony was the seed for Math Doesn’t Suck and Kiss My Math. As the titles suggest, they have very little in common with standard math books. While imparting the basic material, they tell stories about teenage life, accompanied by drawings of a girl that looks a lot like the author.

Watch three video interview with Danica McKellar, in which she discusses the importance of girls learning math, the legacy of “The Wonder Years” and her own methods of making math more interesting.

For McKellar, making girls love math is a personal, political mission. “Girls need to learn math just as much as boys,” she says, “so that we can have just as much of an impact on the future of this country.”
In McKellar’s experience, girls’ attitudes toward math and science are still undermined to some extent by the sort of prejudice Summers stumbled into with his remarks in 2005. “It is a stereotype that is perpetuated in film and television and billboards that girls should be pretty and thin and have perfect skin, and boys need to study hard and do something with their lives.”
Studies like the one in Science and pedagogical adaptations like McKellar’s have helped point out the fallacy in not only that notion, but also to one of the oldest myths about inherent differences between men and women.
As Harvard’s eminent professor of education, Howard Gardner, puts it, “when girls catch up over as little as 30 years, that is very strong evidence that the differences are cultural rather than biological or genetic.”

Read an excerpt from Danica McKellar’s latest book.

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