Rachel Riley says 'boys are taught to be the best, girls are told not to boast'

MATHS whizz Rachel Riley worries girls like her daughter will grow up thinking they should not pursue a career in science or engineering because of outdated stereotypes.

A recent study found that girls are four times less likely to choose maths-based subjects at university than boys, despite showing a “higher degree of competence” for them at school.

The New York University research revealed ability was not the barrier to girls opting for STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) careers. So why do girls shy away from them?

Here, Countdown number-cruncher Rachel, 34, who has six-month-old Maven with husband Pasha Kovalev, 40, a former professional dancer on Strictly Come Dancing, urges parents to encourage their girls towards maths.

'As equal as possible'

"WHEN children are little, we coo at boys when they say they are “the best” at something, but if a girl says the same, she’s told: “Don’t be boastful.” Instead, girls get their praise for being nice and kind. When we’re told these things from a young age, we start believing them. Now I’m a mum to a little girl, I am more aware of this than ever.

I want my daughter Maven to experience a life as equal as possible — and when it comes to ability, there is no reason why her gender should stand in her way. This recent research shows what we see time and time again in studies, the problem is with the stereotypes in society, not with the ability of girls.

Women are just as good at STEM subjects as men. But sadly, we don’t seem to believe in ourselves. Is there any wonder? We are told from such a young age that men’s brains are better suited to careers in science and maths and they’re better at these subjects.

While women are led to believe we’re better suited to caring, creative roles. It’s total rubbish. Incredibly, girls start believing brilliance is a “male trait” at age six, according to research — proving gender stereotypes can take hold very early in the lives of children.

This is partly why there is a gender confidence gap — evidence shows women’s confidence is more likely to be affected by external factors and females also more likely to underestimate their abilities, putting them off more “challenging” career paths.

On top of this, there is another stereotype at play — that scientists are pragmatic, and robotic, which subtly tells women we aren’t suited to STEM subjects because of our purported “caring” or “creative” qualities. This overlooks the reality that engineers are some of the most creative people around.

They are the ones answering questions no one has even thought to ask before. Engineers save lives — they have created exo- skeletons that allow people to walk and they have developed mechanical wombs so babies can grow

Should women want to fulfil their “caring” or “creative” “destinies”, these careers can easily offer them the chance to do so, and young girls need role models, to see real people doing those jobs — so they can aspire to be like them. It’s not about aptitude, it is about how we market these careers. It’s frustrating how many times I’m asked to wear a lab coat in photoshoots.

Mathematicians don’t dress like that. I hope programmes like Countdown help make maths accessible and show that it can be fun. With kids, they have to enjoy something to want to carry on doing it, so any way we can make learning fun will benefit them. I used to love playing Countdown with my little brother after school when we were small.

It’s a great way to practise times tables and think about how numbers work. But I want to shout about other careers in maths and science industries and the brilliant people working in them. There is a huge shortfall of females in these sectors and a lot of capable women who could fill the gaps, if they only knew about the opportunities.

It starts with our children. We all need to be doing more to smash the stereotypes. We need to teach our children that maths is relevant, you can use it in the real world and it is part of everyday life. It’s important to be both literate and numerate.

How many people make a face if you mention maths, and say “I’m rubbish at it”? But we wouldn’t say we were bad at reading would we? So it’s not helpful to say we are bad at maths especially around children. They pick up on it and start thinking it is not important if you can’t do maths. Anyone can get to grips with the subject with the right teaching and confidence.

By promoting the right messages to our children, there is no reason why they can’t succeed and, for me, it will start with not enforcing gender stereotypes too much.

You can see it in the toys and even the clothes aimed at girls versus boys, the slogans and wording they use exacerbating the stereotypes. Life is tough for girls nowadays, especially once they get to their teenage years.

We should be lifting them up as much as possible. We all want the best for our children and now we know the impact that stereotypes can have, we have a huge opportunity to change them for future generations."

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