The gender gap in maths

  • 4 minute read
  • 6 March 2019

As always in education research, it’s not hard to find conflicting studies on whether girls outperform boys in maths, or not. The most likely conclusion is that there’s probably no difference, and if there is one, it’s very small. Our analysis of 60,000 students in Australia, for example, finds that after controlling for levels of socioeconomic advantage, there is almost no difference amongst boys and girls at the start of Year 7 (in the middle of the socioeconomic band, both groups start Year 7 at, on average level 4.1).

But, we do know with some certainty that by the time they get to tertiary education, or full time employment, girls are underrepresented in ‘mathsy’ fields. Given the overall similarity in attainment in maths, the best hypothesis we have is that this gap is more related to attitudes and stereotypes to maths. The evidence doesn’t actually tell us much for certain, but this summary provides a good set of suggested explanations for the gender gap in maths-related fields, based on current research.

Part of the theory behind the Maths Pathway Learning and Teaching Model is that we explicitly seek to ‘level the playing field’ of student experience in mathematics. The research referenced above provides a set of possible reasons for the gap in attitudes to and expectations of maths by boys and girls. Let’s take each of those items a little further and see what the implications of running a maths course, and class, might be.

Two girls sit working at a table with a female teacher at their eye level, smiling at them with a big grin as they work. One of the students is also smiling wide.

Suggested explanation 1: Boys use different problem-solving strategies

In general, girls more often follow teacher-given rules in the classroom, and it could be that this ‘good girl’ tendency inhibits their math explorations and development of bold problem-solving skills.

Clearly, the teacher plays a large part in this situation. If we actively encourage a range of problem solving approaches, and actively refuse to give students the answers, we are more likely to encourage the use of more complex, ‘bold’ approaches to maths. 

Rich tasks are a great way to do this in your classroom. The Maths Pathway model advocates for at least one genuinely Rich task per fortnight. Here’s a great video explaining why Rich tasks are important and how they work in the classroom.  

A female student who has got a pen in hand to write in her book, is staring at something on her laptop. A female teacher is leaning over behind her showing her something on the laptop. They are both smiling.

Suggested explanation 2: Boys tend to have better mental spatial skills

Fortunately, some researchers have found that spatial skills can be improved through training, and one study even found that the gender gap in spatial skills was eliminated with training.

It’s all well and good to say that we should just “train” girls in spatial skills, but in the crowded curriculum that teachers are expected to deliver, who has time for another “intervention” that has to be applied only to some students? Maths Pathway chooses specifically to focus on a combination of personalised learning, and teacher-led mini lessons based on data, so that our teachers can actually target exactly those students that may need to develop their spatial skills (rather than just assuming all girls need particular help in this area).

Three girls work together, smiling at one another, at a whiteboard.

Suggested explanation 3: Teachers’ maths anxiety and stereotypes affects girls

Girls’ math anxiety and lack of confidence are critical predictors of later attitudes, achievement, and career choices

How teachers choose to present ‘mathematics’ is (obviously) of critical importance. One of the reasons that Maths Pathway advocates a holistic learning and teaching model, rather than simply an online tool or supplement to learning, is that we know that students must be immersed in a range of mathematical contexts, tools and experiences, to such an extent that they actually start to see maths as a part of their very identity.

One girl draws a shape on the whiteboard, her face intense with focus.

We know that when you get the balance right in the classroom, there is actually no difference in the mathematical potential of boys and girls in our schools. Realising this requires breaking away from the one-size-fits-all model of education, letting go of our tendency to make only piecemeal changes, and embrace a real change to the way we teach maths.

On this International Women’s Day, for the sake of all the girls in mathematics classrooms today, embrace the change – and if you need help making it, we’re here for you every step of the way.

Author: Maths Pathway

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