Since yesterday, The Children’s Place clothing company has taken heat for selling a girls t-shirt that checks off  “my best subjects” as shopping, music, and dancing–leaving “math” unchecked as the punchline. “Well, nobody’s perfect,” the shirt reads.

mybestsubjects

Picture via Facebook

In response, The Children’s Place announced on its Facebook page Monday that it was pulling the t-shirt.

A number of online commenters weighed in that the t-shirt was a non-issue, posting comments including these:

“The controversy over this shirt is ridiculous! My children’s self worth is taught at home and is not deterred because of a shirt. Everyone needs to get off their high horse and grow a sense of humor!”

 “I’m a girl, and I’m lousy at math. I’ve always stunk at math. I’ll probably never finish my BA because of it. That shirt was no big deal.”

“This is just a stupid thing to be outraged over. Any little girl who looks at that shirt and is seriously discouraged about her academic abilities or vested with the sudden belief that she really cannot do math is probably too stupid to do math anyway.”

It’s just a shirt, right? Yes. And no. It’s a shirt that reinforces a message girls hear all the time—and it’s a message that has consequences.

In 2007, women made up half of the overall workforce, but only 25 percent in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—all fields that require strong math skills.

What do women’s career choices have to do with this purply, hearty, sparkly little shirt?

More than you might think.

As early as elementary school, studies show that children are aware of the stereotype that girls are not as good as boys in math. And even girls who identify as strong in math are affected by it.

“What we think “most people” believe has been shown to influence judgments,” the American Association of University Women states in ‘Why So Few? Women in STEM.’ “If a girl believes that most people, especially those in her immediate environment, think boys are better than girls at math, that thought is going to affect her, even if she doesn’t believe it herself.”

Let’s talk about two major ways that this can impact their performance and career choices: stereotype threat and negative self-assessment.

Stereotype threat: the idea that referencing a negative stereotype about your ability can hurt your performance.

Two groups of students with strong math abilities were given the same math test as part of a 1999 study at the University of Michigan. The only difference—one group was told that men performed better than women on the test, and the other was told that there were no gender differences in test performance. Women performed significantly worse than men in the “stereotype threat” situation, and the gender difference almost disappeared in the “nonthreat” condition. (“Why So Few?”)

Low expectations of girls can become reality.

Negative self-assessment:

Among high school students with the same math grades and test scores, a 2001 Stanford study found that boys assessed their own mathematical ability higher than girls did. Further, even when actual achievement was the same, if the student assessed their own mathematical ability more highly, they were more likely to take high school calculus and eventually choose a STEM-field college major. Among girls and boys with equally high self-assessments, that gender gap was significantly reduced. (“Why So Few?”)

“Boys do not pursue mathematical activities at a higher rate than girls do because they are better at mathematics,” said the study author, Stanford sociologist Shelley Correll. “They do so, at least partially, because they think they are better.”

Correll’s research shows that people respond to the stereotypes immediately around them, rather than those widely held in the larger culture. Her first recommendation for correcting the imbalance for girls in math? Create a culture of respect in individual schools and workplaces.

“When institutions and individuals send the message that girls and boys are equally capable of achieving in math and science, girls are more likely to assess their abilities more accurately,” the AAUW paper states.

That culture of respect can start small. It can start with a t-shirt.