Barbie's vocational choice is apparently no match for deep-seated notions about girls and math in the United States.
The doll's much-ballyhooed decision last year to choose computer engineering as her latest career was aided by the Society of Women Engineers and heralded as a key step toward urging young girls to pursue careers in math and technology.
But a recent study from the University of Washington found that as early as second grade, American children associate math as an endeavor for boys. The study assessed how children link math with gender by examining "math-gender stereotype," the association of math with male or female, and "math self-concept," the association of "me" with math.
"Not only do girls identify the stereotype that math is for boys," says lead author Dario Cvencek, "but they apply that to themselves. That's the concerning part. Girls are translating that to mean 'Math is not for me.' "
He said he and his fellow researchers were surprised by how early the stereotype crops up among youngsters. "We still don't know where that comes from," he says. "It could be through media, through parents, through teachers. It could be the language people are using when they talk about math. When a girl does poorly on a math test, often she's told, 'That's fine. You did your best.' When a boy does poorly, he is more likely to be told, 'You can do better. Try harder next time.' "
Despite surpassing men in the number of both bachelor's degrees and graduate degrees earned, women remain far outnumbered in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, earning just 20 percent of related bachelor's degrees, according to "Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics," a 2010 study by the American Association of University Women.
Parents should use the University of Washington study as a call to action, says Maria Wynne, chief executive officer of the nation's largest Girl Scouts council.
"I think it will take a concerted effort to ensure that we change this," says Wynne, whose organization offers badges for girls who master money counting, computer proficiency, and chemistry projects. "We expose them early on to science and technology and engineering and math as concepts, without labeling them as such."
Food is a great place to start, Wynne says, whether you're baking with your child (measuring, using proportions, adding fractions), grocery shopping (counting products, adding up the bill) or something slightly less conventional.
Seize any opportunity to highlight the role of math in real life, Cvencek says.
"In everything we do, from going to the grocery store to buying gas, math is pervasive," he says. "Help your child understand math is all around us and is not something to be shunned but to be embraced."