# The Myth of the Gender Ability Gap

While the world argues over the cause of the gender achievement gap in math and science, it’s interesting that at RSM there is no gap. There has never been one in fact. Our female students are and have been on completely equal intellectual footing as their male peers.

True, our success lies partially in the quality of our teachers. In January 2010, the associated press reported, “A study of first and second graders suggests: female elementary school teachers who are concerned about their own math skills could be passing that along to the little girls they teach.”At RSM, while many of our teachers are women, they have absolutely no concern about their own math skills. On the contrary, they embrace and enjoy the subject. They use it to empower themselves.

Still, I find it hard to believe that elementary school teachers are the dominant cause of the problem. From my experience, it is mothers – not teachers – who have the greatest effect on their children’s intellectual development. Mothers who have a passion for math always find a way for their children to love it. Whether enrolling them in extracurricular programs, or playing math games at home, they make sure to develop a sustained interest and knowledge in their children.

The same correlation is true for those mothers who either don’t feel that math is important or are burdened with their own anxieties toward the subject. At RSM we have an average retention rate of 87%. In the majority of cancellation cases, it is the mother who is not supportive, for whatever reason, of her children attending the school. Through their apathy or fear, these mothers assure their children that their lives will be perfectly successful without the knowledge of math.

As mothers, we have a unique opportunity. From my point of view, if we raise women who are mathematically competent, we have the potential to completely erase the math issue in our society. These women will go on to be mothers who will not settle for anything less than a solid mathematical education for their children.

It was my goal with this newsletter to introduce you to a few remarkable women in the RSM community, who through their work have proven that the fields of math and science are equally achievable for either gender.

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I completely agree with this article.

Dear Mrs. Rifkin,

I have been meaning to ask you this question for some time. How do you view Kumon and Aloha math education? What do you think is the place for rants and memorization in math curriculum?

As I recall, in Russian schools we memorized square/square root table and multiplication table.

Regards,

Dear MathLover, memorization is very important but ONLY after complete understanding. One can not ask a kid to memorize any math fact without guiding a child in proving the fact first. Memorization without deep understanding is completely useless, it does not lead to intellectual development.

Sincerely,

Inessa Rifkin

I hate this word but to use the Gender Ability Gap is kind of… discrimination. Inna, I like your article very much. I was the lucky one to have a wonderful and funny Algebra teacher in my 6-8 gr. After him it was mostly fun and it is.

Galina

Mrs Rifkin,

May I respectfully disagree entirely with your overvalued view of memorization. In fact, I think it is that very “disclaimer” that causes people to take with far less significance the second part of your statement. In the age of Wolfram Alpha, Mathematica, MatLAB, SAS, Maple, SPlus and more, as well as Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Innoscentive, WebMD.com, ClinicalTrials.gov, etc etc etc, who should EVER bother with memorization? In fact, who should ever bother with computation beyond basic 4 functions, power, parentheses, concept of f(x) as dependency, a->b as rules, and concepts of elements and domains. Everything else is not only easily derived, but MUST be derived, and not memorized. A 5th grader should be figuring out a novel way to multiply higher order numbers in ways which require few operations, calculus can be visualized so that my 4 year old gets it, and I don’t see why formulas for area of a circle or volume of a cone cannot be taught to be derived with integration as early as by the 3rd grade. Even russian mathe education always overemphasized computation, and as such memorization (can’t compute everything all the time, so must remember a lot of final formulas). But that’s no longer necessary. In fact, the world is becoming social at an exponentially increasing rate. Today that means our kids tell each other on Facebook that they’re doing homework as means to procrastinate from doing it, tomorrow companies like Innoscentive will be the everyday commonplace to solve problems. Problems will reach beyond grasping capability of a single human brain very quickly.

Why does this matter? because there’re 4 steps to solving every math problem: (1) ask the right question, (2) create a mathematical representation of the question and procure necessary numbers and systems for solving it, (3) compute, (4) interpret results into real world meaning and verify for common sense (or specific precision) accuracy.

Memorization is only required in #3. So is the ability to calculate. I’m not saying that there are not basic computational skills which should not be taught, in fact I stated most of them above. I am also not saying that memory-developing exercises are not important, but they shouldn’t be in domain of mathematics. It should be a part of maintaining regular physical and mental health to practice your memory – it’s a bodily function, and must be maintained and taken care of much like all other body systems. I’ve never heard a parent say to a child “you’re relying on your notebook too much – you’ll lose your ability to remember” but they’ll daily tell their child to sit back further from TV to protect their sight. Memory is a fight that math teachers had to pick out of desperation, but I believe good math and good health come hand in hand, so it should be a problem which solves itself rapidly in the next generation or two.

In conclusion, may I also respectfully offer to refine “deep understanding” as the ability to process real world information into the language of mathematics, NOT thorough knowledge (memory) of a subject, often confused with understanding. I write comupter code in about 20 languages. I routinley forget functions in each of them, which hardly matters if I understand not only the problem I need to solve, but the general flow of execution of my solutions, so that I will seek most optimal commands if I realize that ones I remembered are not cutting it. Makes me look things up, use them, and declutter my mind immediately from the things I just used – they’re not what matters. In the age of online dictionaries, blogs, and Google, I would broader argue that a better writer, which I do not claim myself to be, is not one with best vocabulary, but the best feeling what what really needs t obe said, and the awareness that there must be a word or a phrase out there to convey the meaning PRECISELY!

P.S.: My pre-soviet-collapse-educated wife has both little memory or understanding of math. She despises having to do anything math related with passion, and will willingly invest more energy protesting to do a math exercise than needed to learn how to solve it. So there are Russian schools, and there are Russian schools. Being Russian in itself doesn’t make science and math education of higher quality. Math teachers who are out there to teach our kids math, regardless of the system: Kumon, Aloha, traditional textbook, or RSM, must first teach to inspire. Otherwise none of the teachings will “stick”. BLESS YOU FOR TRYING HARD TO DO JUST THIS!