Girl with Pen is extremely pleased to bring you the inaugural post from Allison Kimmich, Executive Director of the National Women’s Studies Association. Allison will be posting her column, Girl Talk, which explores truths and fictions about girls, the third Wednesday of every month. -Kristen

As a feminist, and as a professional advocate for feminist education in my work at the National Women’s Studies Association, I felt faint one day three years ago when my then-five-year-old daughter told me that “girls don’t do math.”

Well, it turns out that my daughter was right. Last week the New York Times reported on a study that points to U.S. failures in math education. The article notes that the United States does a poor job of educating both boys and girls in math, but that we especially miss opportunities to encourage girls who could be excellent mathematicians unless they are immigrants or daughters of immigrants from countries where math is valued.

Or as one of the study’s lead author Janet E. Mertz puts it, “We’re living in a culture that is telling girls you can’t do math—that is telling everybody that only Asians and nerds do math.” Neither the study nor the article explores in detail what it is about American culture that undervalues math education, but the American Psychological Association Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls produced a report last year that offers some insights. The report notes that self-objectification (buying sexy clothes or asking parents to do so, and identifying with sexy celebrities) can “detract from the ability to concentrate and focus one’s attention, thus leading to impaired performance on mental activities such as mathematical computations or logical reasoning.”

My daughter is now seven, and I can confirm that she is bombarded with media images (see Montana, Hannah) and consumer products—spaghetti strap tank tops for a seven-year old?—that encourage her to think a lot about her appearance and image in others’ eyes.

For now, my daughter insists that she is not a “fancy girl,” and she happens to be proud of her math skills. I suspect she has forgotten that kindergarten-era conversation. I mentioned the Times article to her feigning disbelief—can you imagine that some children and parents think that math is not important or fun? I asked. She did a double take and wrinkled her forehead: “No way, Mom!”

So schools can do a better job at teaching girls (and boys) math, and our culture sexualizes girls in unhealthy ways. You’re probably not surprised by either of these findings. But I’m still aghast, and I’m not feigning this time.

I’m aghast because it doesn’t take a genius to see that our country needs everyone in the game to find solutions as we face most serious economic crisis of my lifetime, one that my daughter’s generation will inherit.

Taken together, these reports raise a provocative question: How do immigrant girls and their families tune out dominant cultural images and messages about what girls can or should do? How and why do they succeed where many other girls do not? I really want to know. Tell me, what do you think?

Allison Kimmich

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