When Mattel Inc. introduced its Teen Talk Barbie Doll last month, thousands of women bombarded the toymaker with angry phone calls. They were protesting one of 270 phrases that were programmed into a number of the dolls: "Math class is tough."
Although consumer reaction prompted Mattel to apologize and stop using that phrase, the Barbie brouhaha was yet another example of the gender bias that exists for girls in math, says Carol Wood, president of the Association for Women in Mathematics.
Last February, the American Association of University Women released a major report called "How Schools Shortchange Girls." The report concluded that, especially in math and science classes, girls receive less teacher attention than boys do, lag behind in test scores, and are generally not encouraged to pursue math or science careers.
Although studies detailing the same kinds of problems have been published over the last 15 years, the report served as another "shot of awareness" that math teachers need to treat all students - regardless of gender or race - as learners, says Mary Lindquist, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
Much still needs to be done to make math education more equitable for women, Ms. Wood says.
"One of the things we've learned all along is [that] girls, especially when they reach adolescence, need to be told that they're good at math more than the boys do ... because there are a lot of cultural messages even when Barbie shuts up that say [they aren't]. And I think girls are much more [culturally attuned] to listen to those messages than boys.
"To make women comfortable in math at all ages and levels ... you need a critical mass. You need a lot of women in a subject before these problems of being uncomfortable or being treated differently go away."