Dick Evans explores the impact of gender difference on mathematical performance.
Whilst writing the articles on ‘Mathematics – Why the problem’! (Numeracy Briefing issues 9 and 10) I became aware that the interacting factors that created the negative view of the subject could reflect the widely-held perception that females perform less well than the males. This view has generated a popular stereotype that the women and girls are not good at the maths.
A considerable amount of research has been carried out in this area from analysis of basic international statistics on numbers of females and males studying mathematics and mathematics-based subjects to observations of classroom practice. Various issues have emerged as a result of these studies, including:
- The perception of the subject as a masculine pursuit.
- Learner anxiety or the ‘worrying syndrome’.
- The nature of teaching and learning resources.
- Teaching and learning styles.
- Teacher and student expectations/aspirations.
- Teaching and learning environments.
- Differences of confidence in maths amongst males and females.
- The ‘snob value’ of the subject.
- Whether males or females regard the subject as interesting or valuable.
- Issues associated with increased choice in the curriculum and in employment opportunities – where learners regard maths as avoidable.
- Effectiveness of student support systems.
- The negative consequences of the stereotypical image of females and mathematics.
- The questioning of the existing research and statistical analysis methods that have been used.
- Biological differences.
Complex mix of issues.
Mathematics is seen by both genders as difficult but commentators highlight that the participation, achievement levels and subsequent employment of females in the subject can be more affected compared with males. Evidence shows that females are more likely to drop the study of mathematics than males when choice in the curriculum becomes available. Although to be fair, only a relatively small percentage of all students, males and females, continue the subject to higher levels. The current social climate now is very different from the mid-20th century with greater opportunities for females in the professions such as law, medicine and business.
Recently the research focus has changed from a biological to a social determinist model. Determinism basically means that an individual’s behaviour and choice is determined by measures created by others. In its extreme form the biological model advocates that females are innately incompetent at mathematics and as a result do not pursue the subject. Even recently a president of a US Ivy League university restated this controversial view. This widely held macho perception can be refuted as research evidence, both intra- and inter-country, has shown that when females are positively disposed to study the subject they achieve well and often better than their male counterparts. One of many peer-reviewed studies carried out in the US showed that females from ethnic minority backgrounds consistently out performed males. In Papua New Guinea which is based on a matrilineal culture, females performed equally as well as their male counterparts, again highlighting the importance of social and cultural factors. Research in the UK also showed that females of West Indian parentage or backgrounds out performed their male counterparts, again confirming the significance of matriarchal cultures. Many other research programmes across the world reinforce this key factor and make the biological determinism model highly tenuous.
The social determinism model adopts more realistic techniques of research arguing that the female’s role in society is determined by the values, norms and preferences in that society and her own individual characteristics.
The Association of American University Women (AAUW)1 carried out extensive research programmes and a review over the 1980/90s which drew the following conclusions:
- ‘Math confidence has a stronger link to math achievement than any other variable. As girls grow up, they lose confidence in their ability to do well in math. Studies have shown that girls’ loss of confidence in their math abilities precedes a decline in achievement in the middle grades.
- Girls who do well in math tend to have non-traditional views of gender roles.
- Girls who are highly competent in math and science don’t choose related careers at the same rate as highly competent boys.
- Boys who drop out of math and science tend to do so because they can’t do the work. Girls who abandon those fields often do so even when they are doing well in the class.’
A study of the attractiveness of maths to females and males (2) revealed the impact of ‘snob value’. Snob value seems to provide males with sufficient cultural encouragement for them to study the subject and make them feel superior to their male and particularly female counterparts. Females do not acknowledge the snob value of the subject.
The environment is critical in the effectiveness of teaching and learning in all subjects, but appears to be more so in subjects like maths. This can precipitate and accentuate possible gender differences. Teacher/student expectations and aspirations can become a major factor when females are assumed by teachers not to be good at the subject. It is a classic case of self-fulfilling prophecy. There is considerable evidence that females do better in single-sex schools than in co-educational institutions. The generally held view is that maths classroom environments are un-encouraging, unwelcoming and competitive, and this is a factor for females often contributing to less participation by them.
Couple this with the generally held view that the subject is ‘abstract, cold and difficult’ and the consequences of the stereotype view that maths is ‘unfeminine’, little wonder there are problems in many countries. Research also shows that females respond more negatively to poor teaching and are more reluctant to engage in class activity, especially if the teacher prefers to seek responses from the male students. The research literature also indicates that females value more effective interpersonal interactions within the learning institution and seek, quite rightly, good support systems – particularly peer support within a sense of community.
Anxiety or ‘worrying syndrome’ continues to occupy researchers (3) who have shown that anxiety/worrying weakens female performance in maths by undermining the short-term memory.
Another factor, although becoming less significant, is the reinforcement of stereotypical roles in maths textbooks and other learning material. The situation has been improving recently but much stereotyping material was evident until the early 1990s and some no doubt is still in use.
A great deal more research exists but time and space does not allow a fuller exposition of this. The important question is: how can we draw on research to improve the learning environment and encourage gender equality in mathematical participation and performance?
Cognitive research has identified a number of gender differences that might impact on performance in maths for both sexes and these include:
- Females have more effective verbal skills than males.
- Males are better at spatial relationships (Although later research has shown that verbal skills are more significant than spatial ones).
- Females are more efficient at perceptual speed.
- Males remember visual cues whilst females remember placement of objects and words.
- Females have more acute hearing whilst males possess more acute vision.
These broad statements could provide pointers on how to improve the learning and teaching of maths:
- Teachers should not ‘talk to the blackboard’ – maths teachers are more inclined to do this even with the advent of modern audiovisual resources.
- Teachers must describe each stage of the problem as females with greater verbal skills gain from a fuller explanation of what is expected. Research reveals that this approach used along with a greater attention to delineating the different stages in a problem delivers real benefits for females.
- Recognising differences between females and males in the use of body language can improve classroom interaction and result in more effective learning. Females are better at reading body language and the teacher can capitalise on this, e.g. by better management of question and answer sessions.
- Both sexes benefit from more active learning as opposed to the more traditional passive style so often adopted by maths teachers.
- Teachers should also recognise the difference between females and males in such areas as perceptual speed as females can identify errors and proof read more quickly when setting and presenting problems.
- Many issues centre on visual versus verbal learning where females find word problems difficult – they often find, as do many males, difficulty in separating the maths from the words. Teachers need to recognise and compensate for this.
- Another related element is the understanding of the language used in mathematics and it is helpful if all students are given a glossary of terms or even a specialist dictionary.
- The anxiety factor can be significantly reduced if the environment for both teaching and learning is attractive and not ‘chilly’ for all students. Research has shown that a sympathetic management of stress significantly improves learning.
- The introduction of more user-friendly problem solving approaches brings about improvement and increases confidence of students especially for females, e.g. Sudoko and logic, number and word puzzles.
These issues are relevant to both numeracy and maths teaching. It is essential that a greater understanding by teachers and tutors of the possible causes, both social/cultural and cognitive, of gender differences in regard to these key subjects is recognised.
* (1)”Report on Short-changing Girls A Call to Action.”. AAUW. Annapolis Junction, MD. 1991.
* (2) “Gender and Mathematics. An International Perspective.” Edited by Leone Burton. Cassell. 1990. ISBN 0-304-32279-2.
* (3) “Stereotype Treat and Working Memory PerformanceiMechanisms, Alleviation and Spill Over.” Journal of Experimental Psychology. Edited by R Rydell. 2007