The XX Factor

Discouraging Math Smarts in Girls

Photo by FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

Bookishness, intelligence, intellectual curiosity: These are all things that are increasingly gendered as “female,” at least for the pre-college set, as evidenced by girls’ soaring college enrollment rates and the existence of the character of Hermione Granger. It gives me great hope that the next generation of women coming up don’t have to tolerate what women my age have had to suffer in terms of condescension from men who are dumber than you, and being passed over for certain opportunies because it’s just assumed that the person with the skills necessary is wearing a tie.  

While things have gotten much better in many regards, however, not all sexist prejudices about girls and intelligence have fallen by the wayside. For some reason, Forever 21 felt this girl’s T-shirt that says “Allergic to Algebra” would still have an audience, after all, suggesting that the stereotype that girls are naturally bad at math is alive and well. (This stereotype is so pernicious that within a few years of my graduating high school, I found myself having to correct relatives who “remembered” me as struggling in math classes, when in fact my grades were about equal in all my classes.) Equally distressing is that this shirt–discovered right on the tail of an outrage over a JCPenney shirt that said “too pretty for homework”–suggests a persistent belief that intelligence and attractiveness are mutually exclusive.  

Of course, every time a feminist writes about this particular stereotype, she is deluged with comments from men ready to reassure the world that they are totally into boning the ladies who think. And while I’m certainly grateful for abundant offers of penis, that’s not really my main concern when I see girls being targetd with messages that you can’t be cute if you’re smart.  The problem isn’t so much that the girls who go with “smart” are going to have to wait until they’re a little older to feel the warm bath of male attention so much as that the girls who choose to downplay their intelligence when they’re young in order to be popular will pay the price for the rest of their lives.  Young women may not really grasp that once you turn 21 or so, you get to be both sexy and smart, and I worry that bad decision-making may be the result.