It’s no secret that a big part of the conversation around STEM – science, technology, engineering, and math – these days revolves around the pervasive educational and professional gender gaps in these fields. Girls and women are majorly outnumbered in STEM industries, and that trend of underrepresentation is even lower for girls and women of color. So how might we resolve problems like this? Well, subscription box founder Brittany Rhodes has an answer.
As the entrepreneur behind popular STEM subscription Black Girl MATHgic, Brittany works specifically to encourage more representation of women and girls in mathematics. “Math is the foundation of STEM and is critical for STEM engagement and success,” she points out. “Even if a child is not interested in pursuing a STEM major or career, basic math is a life skill; we all need reasonably good math skills to be productive members of society.”
Because extensive research studies indicate that girls have lower confidence levels in their math abilities compared to boys – and that girls’ confidence, in general, decreases in their teen years – it was clear to Brittany that she would need to target tween and teen girls. “If we don’t have confidence in something, we’re much less likely to engage in it – and subscription boxes provide consistency that allow the opportunity to really build math confidence month after month!”
Math Anxiety and the Confidence Gap
In fact, Brittany didn’t need these studies to back up what she already knew. As a math coach for the last fifteen years – with an MBA and a Bachelor’s in mathematics – she's seen evidence of this confidence gap for decades. “I noticed over the years that when my students needed help with higher-level mathematics, like geometry or algebra, many times, it wasn’t the geometry or algebra concepts that they were struggling with,” she says. “Often, it was the math basics. Their foundation wasn’t solid, so everything else just felt a lot more difficult than it should.” As a result, Black Girl MATHgic focuses on math skills taught between third and eighth grade, so subscribers at any age can continue to “strengthen [their] foundation.”
The math anxiety Brittany saw in her students is widespread and only appears to be growing. In fact, the US Department of Education has published findings that over 93% of American adults claim to experience some degree of these negative feelings. Given this trend, Brittany notes, “building math confidence is non-negotiable.” And that’s crucial across the board. “We want all girls, no matter what their racial or ethnic background, to enjoy and benefit from the BGM Box.”
That being said, studies have proven that math anxiety has a more significant impact on women and people of color. “Math anxiety is a key reason why women and people of color are underrepresented in the STEM fields,” Brittany explains. “Combined with stereotype threat – or negative expectations of performance linked to gender and racial biases – math anxiety, or trauma, shuts a lot of people down, and it shuts them out of STEM.” Because black girls and women sit at the intersection of two marginalized identities, they suffer these effects more deeply, which widens the gender and racial gaps in STEM even more.
How BGM Helps
One solution is Black Girl MATHgic’s monthly lessons, which are “intentionally curated to address the various phenomena that contribute to low math confidence and high math anxiety” like “stereotype threat, implicit bias, societal messaging, lack of visible role models, [and] lack of connection to her lived experiences.” That’s why every box comes with a featured female mathematician, an activity booklet that directly connects that month’s concepts to real-world situations, a unique affirmation, specially selected bonus products, and a “Caring Adult Guide” for the caretaker in the subscriber’s life, who may also suffer from math anxiety. “We wanted to create an opportunity for them to see themselves in a world where they often don’t,” Brittany explains.
Each month, the mathematician feature, activity booklet, guide and affirmation are developed by Brittany herself, while the 3-5 additional products are sourced from all over. “The items are usually learning tools [or] aids such as books, notebooks, pencils and items that can be used to create math games,” she explains. “In my September box, I included playing cards and math operator dice.”
In addition to sourcing, curating, operating, and shipping monthly boxes for Black Girl MATHgic, Brittany also gives back to her local community. “We also create and facilitate math confidence workshops for youth-serving organizations,” she says. “I envision a world where all children, no matter their race, ethnicity or gender, have the critical math skills they need to succeed in class today and society tomorrow.” For Brittany, Black Girl MATHgic goes beyond the box. “Success, to me, looks like BGM playing a huge role in getting to that world – not only through the box, but through workshops, partnerships with schools/districts, math clubs, books, etc.”
So what’s next for Black Girl MATHgic, aside from crushing the confidence game? “We will also be launching a boy box in 2020,” Brittany tells us. “Stay tuned!”