Women and Math in the Media: A Commentary

As a math teacher, one of the biggest obstacles I face when teaching students is math anxiety. Many students have it to varying degrees. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about how math anxiety tends to fall along gender lines and, of course, The Big Bang Theory [TBBT].

Before I start, I just want to be clear: I don’t hate TBBT (I actually find it pretty funny), and I certainly don’t think that it’s the cause of the problems that I want to talk about. However, I do feel that it is a very visible symptom of a larger over-arching problem. Besides, no one will have read the research articles I’ll be quoting, but most people will have seen at least one episode of one of the most popular currently-running TV shows, so it gets to be the unfortunate lightening rod for my disappointment.

For those who may have not heard of TBBT, it is a show about scientists hanging out and being nerdy. It starts out with the beautiful Penny moving across the hall from Leonard and Sheldon, two physicists doing research at Caltech. That’s a fairly straightforward sitcom setup. However, several criticisms have been leveled at the show because of its use of stereotypes as part of its humor. Penny is the beautiful, normal person. The scientists are men, socially inept, and unable to talk to Penny easily. Why is this a problem?

This reinforces some harmful stereotypes about women in science (and scientists generally, but we’ll put those aside for a moment).  Penny is often shown as completely clueless about various science and math topics and has to have them explained to her by the shows male cast members. In this, the writers cast Penny as the audience, who the writers assume know nothing about the topics on the show. For the first several seasons, there are no other female leads. This is alleviated a little bit with the introduction of Bernadette and Amy, a microbiologist and neurologist respectively. However, for their first few seasons, both are portrayed as socially awkward and admirers of Penny’s beauty. In short, it went from saying that “girls can’t do science” to “pretty girls can’t do science.” Finally, in the most recent seasons, Bernadette and Amy have taken on greater roles and shed some of their questionable character traits to become better female role models.

Maybe you’re wondering why I’m making such a big deal of an admittedly small part of the show. It’s all in good fun, right? I point it out because the way women are portrayed in media affects how girls and women feel about their abilities to perform in math and science. Multiple studies have shown that women report higher levels of math anxiety than men, and while the reason for this is up for some debate (Jameson & Fusco, 2014), studies have found that examples and role models can have positive or negative effects. For example, elementary-aged girls are more likely to have math anxiety and believe in the stereotype that boys are better at math than girls if their female teacher also has math anxiety (Beilock et al., 2010). Negativity about math is contagious, even if it is left unspoken.

On the other hand, positive portrayals of women in careers and science in magazines have been shown to help improve women’s performance on a math exam (Luong & Knobloch-Westerwick, 2017). Notice that wasn’t long-term exposure to those stereotypes, that was simply reading a few pages from a single magazine immediately before taking the exam. So if those good stereotypes helped after just a few minutes, even if that effect was temporary, imagine what constant exposure over the course of an entire TV show could do for a child?

As I mentioned, TBBT has definitely taken steps in the right direction in this regard. I am certainly not trying to get people to hate the show, but rather point to it as one of the most visible examples. However, the myths and stereotypes about women and math persist across many shows and stories in culture today. While having more positive role models of women in math and science won’t magically fix every issue faced by women in STEM fields, it could help alleviate at least the math anxiety faced by girls becoming women.

I’m not asking for anything drastic. All I am asking for are a few more Bernadettes and a few fewer Pennys.

  • Beilock, S. L., Gunderson, E. A., Ramirez, G., & Levine, S. C. (2010). Female teachers’ math anxiety affects girls’ math achievement. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(5), 1860–1863. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0910967107
  • Jameson, M. M., & Fusco, B. R. (2014). Math anxiety, math self-concept, and math self-efficacy in adult learners compared to traditional undergraduate students. Adult Education Quarterly, 64(4), 306–322.
  • Luong, K. T., & Knobloch-Westerwick, S. (2017). Can the Media Help Women Be Better at Math? Stereotype Threat, Selective Exposure, Media Effects, and Women’s Math Performance: Media and Stereotype Threat. Human Communication Research, 43(2), 193–213. https://doi.org/10.1111/hcre.12101

4 thoughts on “Women and Math in the Media: A Commentary

  1. Hi Garin!
    I really like your post on this topic. As a woman in science, I can feel the pressure of STEM on women. While I think it is something that is constantly improving and becoming a grass-roots movement of sorts, I think that we have a long way to go before Hollywood will begin typecasting women, like Penny, who are into STEM! Math anxiety is definitely real for people who have difficulties understanding it. The frustration in a math class, or during a complex problem in physics, can sometimes be palpable. Teaching students to approach math with confidence, not fear, is something that we need to focus on in upcoming years.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for commenting with your experience! While I can read articles and observe what happens around me, as I am not in fact a woman in STEM, I don’t have personal knowledge of that pressure. It’s nice to get confirmation from someone with first-hand understanding that I did the topic justice.

      While it is true that Hollywood as a ways to go, I remain hopeful. Even The Big Bang Theory has improved drastically in how it represents STEM women, so at least the tide is moving the right direction!

      Sadly, it isn’t just up to teachers to break the cycle of math anxiety. No matter how well a teacher covers the material or how many pep-talks the teacher gives, if the student takes the homework home only to hear from family, friends, and media that math is hard and confusing and that that is normal (especially if they are saying it is normal because of an in-born trait like gender), it’s going to be difficult to overcome in the classroom alone. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t try, but to say that there won’t be a pedagogical silver bullet for this problem. We’ll just have to keep trying to break the cycle and help give parents like Kerri in the other comment the tools they need to help their kids avoid the pitfalls of the past.


  2. Hi Garin!

    You are 100% correct about math anxiety. I have suffered from it all my life (I truly can’t think of another subject I fought about, cried about, and dragged my feet to do more than math…and physics, which is math-based), and I recall statements at home – from my mother – supporting my fears. “I didn’t understand math either” and “I struggled with math too” were commonplace around homework time. Or “I don’t know, I was dumb at math” with a laugh was also not unheard of. I know my mom didn’t mean harm, yet I can feel the anxiety around numbers rise even thinking about fractions, pre-calc, equations, etc. I’m a linguistics-oriented person by nature and heart, so aside from the ill-placed commentary at home, numbers just never resonated like letters. I couldn’t/can’t see them in my mind’s eye and they didn’t/don’t connect to anything that make them stick (aside from pure memorization), so they fly out just as fast as they fly in.

    I, however, am bound-determined not to repeat the ugly-math cycle with my daughters, so a subsequent post on how to be a proponent [when you hated it yourself] would be a great boon for me!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is interesting that the exact wording of the stereotype that Beilock et al. tested to see if girls believed was, “boys are good at math, and girls are good at reading.” I’m not saying that in some weird way to diminish your skills with letters, but I wonder if the stereotype threat wasn’t present if the skill gap between letters and numbers would have formed, or at least perhaps not to the degree it did.

      I had actually not thought to write a follow-up to this blog post, but you are right; it would be a great idea! I’ll try to work that in before the course ends. Thanks for the suggestion!


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