Tackling the gender bias in mathematics education

We’ve come a long way, but maths is still a boys’ club. Where does this problem start, and how can we solve it?

Mathematics is a male-dominated field – and the causes stretch back to childhood education.   Robert Couse-Baker/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

Mathematics is a male-dominated field – and the causes stretch back to childhood education. Robert Couse-Baker/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The idea that boys are better at maths than girls is hardly new. Seemingly a common misconception, it leads to a warped perception of mathematics in education and beyond. Present throughout society from subtle biases to references in popular culture, the gender imbalance is blatantly obvious in higher education. 

65 years ago, women made up an underwhelming 20% of university students; academia was very much dominated by their male counterparts. Now, however, about 55% of students at university are female, and despite the significant increase in the number of women undertaking higher education, they are still underrepresented in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and particularly mathematics). Earlier this year, the results of a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) indicated that the gender imbalance in mathematics may extend back to gender biases in primary school. Teachers reward male students higher marks in maths than their female peers, even if they have the same ability level, the study showed. The researchers looked at the marks for maths work given by teachers who knew the gender of the students being assessed, in comparison with those given by teachers who were unaware of the gender of the students, revealing a gender-bias towards males. From this point, the study examined the effects of this early gender-bias throughout a child’s education. Leaning towards males based on perceived mathematical ability produced long-lasting effects on the educational choices made by students towards their future. 

Differences between the mathematical abilities of boys and girls are likely socially derived.   US Department of Education/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

Differences between the mathematical abilities of boys and girls are likely socially derived. US Department of Education/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The cause of this bias bears a resemblance to the ‘relative age effect’, a phenomenon observed in the upper divisions of sport. In essence, it dictates that those born early in the sporting year – January through March for Australia, or September through November for many other places in the world – are more likely to carry on playing sport, and compete for the top teams later on. Why does this occur, though? When children begin playing sport, at around nine or ten years of age, the difference in size and strength between those born earlier and later in the same year is significant. Those born early in the year are bigger and more developmentally advanced, so they tend to excel at sport over their younger peers. This gap in physical ability becomes less significant every year, until the month of birth matters very little – but because the early-born children have been told that they are the best, they continue to excel, while their late-born counterparts may drop out of the sport due to the belief that they are inherently worse. This demonstrates the way in which encouragement and success can determine a child’s goals and aspirations, and although sport and month of birth have very little to do with studying mathematics, it is this same process that is driving fewer women into mathematics than men: low expectations.

The NBER study supports this notion: the expectation that boys are better at maths than girls is actually leading children to adhere to these expectations. This relates to ideas within teaching called self-concept and self-efficacy: whether students see themselves as good or bad at a subject, and how they view their ability to learn or perform within a subject. In the case of maths, if girls see themselves performing worse than boys, they will see their abilities as inferior, and generally carry this idea with them in the future, which is just what the study demonstrates. Encouragement from, as well as the expectations of teachers (whether positive or negative), is extremely important in the development of one’s self-concept from a young age. What we say to children and adolescents – the language we use, the tone, the inferences of our words – has the ability to impact their view of themselves, for better or worse.

Monash University Professor Helen Forgasz has studied the differences in achievement between males and females in mathematics extensively. She notes that attitudes towards gender and mathematics saw an improvement in the 80s and 90s. The same attitudes, however, have reverted significantly of late. It is younger people, she says, who are more likely to believe there is an innate difference between boys and girls when it comes to ability in both maths and English. Prof Forgasz’s research indicates that the majority of people surveyed believe the issue of gender imbalance in mathematics is somehow related to teaching. This is a great starting point: the recognition of the problem in the public eye will be extremely important in beginning to change things.

Mathematics, irrespective of gender, is a field that most people know little about, outside of their memories of maths at school or that stats class they had to take in their first year of uni. What many people might not realise is that it can be a highly practical field, counter to its perception as strictly theoretical. Dr Jennifer Flegg, a researcher and lecturer at Monash University working on mathematical biology, uses mathematical models to look at healing, tumour growth, and epidemiology. “My research is in mathematical biology, which uses mathematical models and tools to understand or give insight into a biological problem,” Dr Flegg said of her work. “I got into this area because it was a way to apply mathematics, which I've always loved, to real world problems.”

A lack of women in mathematical fields contributes to the reinforcement of traditional gender roles.   neychurluvr/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

A lack of women in mathematical fields contributes to the reinforcement of traditional gender roles. neychurluvr/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Dr Flegg said that, although she has never experienced any negativity or been affected by the shortage of women in her field, “a target area that would help gender imbalance is to have young women studying STEM subjects at high school or university have access to a female role model who has made a career in a STEM field.” Though Dr Flegg’s own experiences have not been affected by being a woman in mathematics, other women can definitely look to her, and women like her, for inspiration. “It's not really something that I think about all that much, as I've honestly never felt disadvantaged by any gender imbalance,” she said. “In all honestly, I don't feel that I'm affected by the lack of females in my field. Good opportunities are out there for me and if I want to make the most of them, all I need to do is work hard, like any other academic, male or female.” Ideally, in the future, more women will have the same experience as Dr Flegg.

The use of female role models is a common approach in tackling gender biases, and it seems that targeting education, and changing the perceptions of girls while they are young, is widely recognised as a key step in bringing more women into mathematics and other STEM areas.

A recent initiative by the BHP Billiton Foundation and the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI) has pledged AUS$22m towards increasing the number of women entering STEM fields. The Choose Maths program will be aimed at challenging perceptions of STEM fields, and raising awareness of STEM careers as a valid option for women. As part of the program, inspiring women in mathematics will network with students, and a national award for excellence in mathematics teaching and learning will be established. The program, which seems to be aimed equally at changing education and encouraging females to participate in mathematics, will also include teacher professional development – which, as evident by the NBER study, is key in enacting change and increasing the number of women pursuing careers in maths.

While other ideas have been put forward to reduce the gender discrepancy in STEM industries, the AMSI and BHP Billiton partnership seems the most promising. It seems clear that education is where we need to focus our efforts in encouraging more women to pursue maths further, and that education needs to be targeted in its early stages. “I’m more concerned about getting kids engaged at a higher level at maths and that involves putting in the hard work before they get to year 10”, Dr Ainley of the Australian Council for Educational Research told Charis Palmer for The Conversation, when asked why girls are opting out of science and maths in increasing numbers in years 11 and 12, and why this is detrimental.

Gender bias in mathematics is a problem that can only be solved through sustained effort.   Robert Couse-Baker/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

Gender bias in mathematics is a problem that can only be solved through sustained effort. Robert Couse-Baker/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

In 2011, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) determined that change could only be achieved through the promotion of gender equality in education. The OECD’s Gender Initiative suggests a policy of teacher and parent encouragement of girls to increase self-esteem in relation to their ability in STEM subjects. However, the OECD also says: “While it is difficult to separate innate and learned behaviours and to assess the influence of stereotypes, the effect of this gender imbalance is very clear. It hinders women’s careers, it lowers their future earnings levels and deprives OECD economies of a source of talent and innovation. It is also an inefficient use of investment in education.” Essentially, despite its importance, simply overhauling education will not necessarily fix the entire problem. 

Gender biases early on certainly play a part in the establishment of the gender imbalance, however problems may still exist for women who go into STEM fields in the future. As these fields are extremely male-dominated, the OECD suggests we should be wary of a lack of equality in the workforce. Equality needs to be promoted in the workplace; simply funnelling girls into STEM careers will be ineffective if they only go on to face inequality later. Attitudes towards employment need to be addressed, too, the OECD suggests. In the four years since the Gender Initiative was founded, the OECD claims that some results have been seen, though we still have a way to go in correcting the gender imbalance across many fields. The Gender Initiative, while focussed on STEM fields primarily, recognises that, as in any field, women may not have equality – in wages, in the issue of childcare and maternity leave – and suggests that even if we change the way mathematics is taught, we could still have problems later on with existing biases in the workforce.

It seems that the OECD is right – we cannot simply address the issue of a lack of women in mathematics by funnelling girls into the field via their school education; attitudes within the wider industry and even the workforce in general need to be tackled simultaneously. Simply getting more women to pursue mathematics in higher education seems to only be a temporary solution unless we encourage a change in perspective of women in employment. Issues such as the gender pay gap and discrimination need to be addressed to ensure that women have the same opportunities as men in STEM fields. This too, at least to some extent, does begin in schools. However, it also encompasses a much wider range of issues, some of which need to be addressed on a policy level. That being said, targeting education in order to increase female participation in mathematics is far from a bad idea: it is simply an idea that needs to be supported by other actions. These are still vital changes that we must make in order to move away from male-dominated STEM fields. 

Giving women the opportunity to pursue a career STEM fields is vital to correcting the broader issue of gender inequality, and to providing an equal opportunity for all. The fact that mathematics is currently heavily male-dominated not only shapes societal perspectives of gender in relation to the field, but could also act as a deterrent for women who wish to enter the field. Furthermore, gender biases are not only limiting to young women but also to institutions, who could be missing out on the ideas of some brilliant students who would never pursue mathematics due to the belief that they aren’t good enough. In tackling the gender imbalance, we could be opening up areas such as science and mathematics to new thinkers who otherwise might not have gone into STEM fields. All in all, what needs to happen is a multi-step process, and encouraging girls to participate in mathematics is almost certainly the first step. It will take time to change the current situation, and what we can do now, as teachers, parents, or however we may impact upon the lives of young people, is to encourage and support equality.