Different for girls?
Closing the mathematical Gender Gap
In 2018, mathematics remains a male-dominated field. Nicola Pearson asks why this is still the case and suggests how we can all help bring about change, and why the Early Years are so important.
Hidden and not so hidden messages
It’s been a long time since I sat in a maths class as a young girl, idly chatting to a friend while the teacher focused on our male peers. The unspoken message was clear. We weren’t expected to apply ourselves to maths; we weren’t destined for great results. Expectations at best, were low.
From teachers, parents, society, TV and films, the hidden messages were everywhere. It was somehow OK not to be good at maths; particularly if you were female. It was also OK to tell anybody, in any given situation, that you weren’t good because it was deemed acceptable. Even into adulthood, we say with ease that it was a subject in which we floundered. We’re quick to get someone else to sort out the restaurant bill, while casually explaining that we were never that good at maths at school.
“Girls don’t do Maths”
The idea that girls are not as good as boys at maths had long been the prevailing narrative. But are things any better today? Research continues to reveal a definite gender gap when it comes to success in maths and an even bigger gap when it comes to careers in the maths (STEM) field.
Boys generally outperform girls at high school and significantly more boys than girls opt to study maths and science at university. The OECD noted that in 2015, new entrants into bachelor degrees in science and engineering were 69% male and 31% female.
Is it really “in the genes”?
Many of us have grown up thinking that people are born with a natural aptitude for maths; that it’s somehow in our genes. Research tells us, however, that “gender disparities in performance do not stem from innate differences in aptitude (to maths), OECD, (2015). Spelke, also noted that studies “do not support the position of a male ‘intrinsic aptitude’ for mathematics….and there is no difference in the potential for females and males to achieve in mathematics” (2005).
And yet, we continue to see a disparity between males and females in terms of results, university courses and career choices. Research points to a lack of confidence, maths anxiety, parental perceptions and teachers’ attitudes/beliefs, as some of the main culprits.
The impact of the Early Years
Studies have shown that in the early years of school, achievement in maths will determine how much interest and confidence a child will have, and is a good predictor of how good they’ll be at maths later on. Some teachers however, (consciously or subconsciously), can undermine girls’ confidence, negatively impacting their future success.
A study from the National Centre for Education Statistics Early Childhood Longitudinal Program, noted that some teachers perceived girls who had nearly identical ability in maths to the boys, to be significantly less able. They also found that the most able students at the start of kindergarten made up 33% of the 99th percentile and by the end of second grade, only 15%. One of the researchers, Cimpian (2011), claimed that the reason for half of the growth of the gender gap was due to “teachers having lower expectations of girls. When teachers assume their female students can’t do maths problems, it drives girls’ confidence down”.
Moreover, a BBC article, Girls more afraid of maths than boys (2016), claimed that girls are ‘more afraid’ of maths than boys in 80 countries. Dr L. Vittert, lecturer at the school of maths and statistics at the University of Glasgow, notes in the article, how her maths teacher thought she should give up on the subject when she was just 14 years old.
She points out that, “When you have authority figures telling you, you can’t do something…it creates huge anxiety….there are pressures on young girls not to do these things.”
What can be done?
The gender gap, perceptions and attitudes continue to exist, but they’re no longer being ignored. Today, there is a much greater awareness of the issue and parents and teachers are more informed. It’s also being taken seriously on an international level, thanks to reports such as UNESCO’s, Cracking the Code: Girls’ and Women’s Education in STEM, which found that globally, only 35% of students in higher education in the STEM field are female. UNESCO, as part of its drive to promote the empowerment of females, is also giving particular attention to the issue in its role in encouraging females to be STEM leaders.
The attention and initiatives to close the gap are to be welcomed and essential for real change to take place. However, whether we’re parents, educators or film makers, we also need to work constantly to remove the notion that maths is a male subject and that girls are somehow not as able as boys.
Top tips for change
The good news is that we can all do something to effect change. As parents (and teachers) there are everyday things that we can do with our girls that can change perceptions. These tips seem simple – but do think about them the next time you want to say something about “Maths being difficult” – in any context!
- Speak Positively about Maths
- Talk about Maths Everyday
- Be your Child’s Advocate
- Play Math Games
- Ask your child How They Worked it Out
- Ask your child to Group Objects
- Look at Patterns
- Help your child Understand
- Praise, Encourage and Support
For more information about these strategies, go to http://mindsofwonder.com/2018/02/02/how-to-build-maths-confidence-with-your-daughter/
Nicola Pearson is an education consultant who has a passion for early childhood education.
Her website and company, Minds of Wonder (http://mindsofwonder.com/) helps parents actively support their child’s learning with a wide range of resources, advice and support materials.
Feature Image: Pixabay