Danica McKellar, she of Wonder Years fame, has grown all up and become a mathematician. Everyone who has ever watched VH1's "Where Are They Now" probably knows that (and what happened to that show?). And after growing up, writing a physics theorem that has been named after her, becoming a yoga instructor (seriously, she and her mom have a line of videos), and continuing on as an actress, Danica McKellar decided to do something to help minimize the gap between girls and boys in math classes and possibly mathematical fields. On a visit to Good Morning America -and if you watch the clip, look for the little girl by the back window- she said, "Boys and girls are afraid of math in junior high, make no mistake about it." But boys are encouraged to go into math and sciences whereas "girls don't end up going into math and science as much as young women because they're not encouraged to. They're told in every message conceivable, every form conceivable -billboards, magazines, tv shows, movies- that people who do math and science are nerdy, and they're guys, and they're told that math is not for them."
So she wrote a book, Math Doesn't Suck, which I'm sure many people have heard about. Math Doesn't Suck is an interesting book with an interesting premise -that if you teach "girlie" math, math with feminized examples in a "fun" way, then girls will learn math and like math and be more likely to go into math. Making it look like the cover of a teen magazine (and Kiss My Math goes further with this theme), Danica McKellar tries to take the fear out of math by making it safe for girls. By integrating lessons on fractions, decimals, and percents with quizzes on being a "math-o-phobe" and questions about teenage (or preteen) crushes and horoscopes. Kiss My Math has the same premise and the same cover, with tips on how to beat stress and ways of finding out if the girl in question has supportive friends.
It is kind of like guerilla warfare, education style. The books Danica McKellar writes are about things like being cool and feminine and having boyfriends. She says, "In Kiss My Math, I teach averages and I say, 'Okay, if your boyfriend texted you this many times today and this many times tomorrow and here's the whole week, how many times on average did he text you?'; that may be something a 13, 14 year old girl would be interested in knowing." And she may be right. Maybe the way to teach girls math is to segregate the examples we give to boys (bullet speed, trains meeting, traditional stuff), and examples we give to girls (lipstick color, texts received, feminine stuff), but I'm not convinced. As much as I like Danica McKellar and as much as I think she is doing a wonderful thing by trying to get girls interested in math -and as much as I agree with her that knowing math "just empowers them"- I can't help but feel that books like this and examples like this just reinforce certain gender stereotypes.
And it leaves no place for the girl who either doesn't have a boyfriend or doesn't care how many times her boyfriend texted her, the girl who is turned off by girlie script and the idea that girls are going to intrinsically care about hair styles and boys and being popular and cool. And -perhaps more insidiously- it makes it seem like in order to succeed in math, girls have to be pretty and fashion-savvy. The girl with bad hair and no fashion sense still has no place in math. It reinforces the notion of what traditionally makes up proper girl behavior, and it adds math to the mix. Danica McKellar and her books aren't the only guilty parties here; Newsweek had an article about the Nerdette, and every girl highlighted was a fashionista and tech-and-math friendly. Maybe this is the way it has to be done; maybe in order to make girls in math palatable to both girls and the greater society at large, girls in those fields need to be girlied up and made to be not only smart but also sexy -not only tech savvy but also pretty. Maybe girls will be more interested in math if they know boys will still be interested in them, and maybe boys will be less threatened by girls in math if those girls would be equally at home on the cover of Vogue.
But I wouldn't count on it. And it hurts girls who look more like Sara Gilbert (who I mention because she guest-starred on The Big Bang Theory) than they do Danica McKellar. McKellar mentions that being good at math is seen by girls as nerdy, and nerdy implicitly equals bad. But nerdy is no longer a groin to the flagpole offense for guys ever since the tech revolution, so we need to work more as a society for making it less of a crime for girls as well. That would mean turning the focus away from looks as being one of the most important things about a girl, and that would be good for girls interested in math and in general.
I think the thing that breaks down the real problem of math and girls -the problem Danica McKellar highlights in the beginning of girls being not only not encouraged but even discouraged from entering math fields- is being solved more by McKellar's own exposure than even by her books. Here is a girl who has succeeded in math and science and is being celebrated for it on news programs and on book lists. She highlights that it can be done, that girls can be afraid of math in junior high and still succeed. She is the ambassador, the woman girls can point to when they're in their guidance counselor's office; one of the people who can counteract the billboards and movies and tv series. We just need more of her out there, spreading that message.