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Do Girls Have to Play Catch-Up with the Boys in Maths Class?

From Imogen, published on 29/06/2017 We Love Prof - UK > Academia > Maths > Learning Maths: Is There a Battle of the Sexes?

Do boys perform better than girls in maths lessons?

Why do fewer female students opt to study science-based courses?

Even in the 21st century, the question of whether there is a difference in the abilities of each gender is still as frequently discussed as ever.

According to the cliché, girls lack the practical skills and the ability to think logically – qualities associated with male learners.

However, a study from the University of Provence Aix-Marseille shows that female students are less likely to do well in scientific disciplines as the teacher and parents do not expect them to be able to achieve the same level of understanding as their male counterparts, and therefore they do not receive the right amount of guidance.

Can anyone be a mathematician? Let’s look more closely at the potential differences in learning math.


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The Big Picture

In France

In France, it is estimated that in a class of 14-15 year-olds, nearly 82% of girls have high grades in French, compared to just 68% of boys.

However, the mathematical performance of the boys was only slightly better than the girls’, with 87.0% of male students demonstrating good basic math skills compared to 86.8% of female students.

So the boys win by a tiny margin, but it’s nothing to shout about, even if they are more likely to take private math lessons to improve their skills in solving math problems involving multiplication and long division, addition and subtraction, place value, maths word problems, reasoning, graphing, practicing number sense, calculus, turning fractions into a decimal, probability, arithmetic, Pythagorean theorem, trigonometry, inequalities, factorising algebraic equations, fluency in times tables and educational games for kids or puzzles such as Sudoku.

In the USA

A study published in the Science review shows that despite what some people may believe, the ability of a learner to understand mathematics is in no way dependent on their gender.

There is a noticeable difference in the performance of male and female maths students Do girls and boys have equal opportunities in education? ¦ source: Pixabay – Pezibear

However, the idea that maths and science studies are reserved for male students and that the humanities are for girls is still held by some parents and even teachers.

Nevertheless, this belief is not based on scientific fact and is therefore nothing but an outdated stereotype which doesn’t justify the underrepresentation of female mathematics students, engineers, or scientists.

The study surveyed 7 million pupils in 10 states in the standard annual exams conducted across the US.

So, the result is clear: when it comes to math for kids, there is no difference between boys and girls, regardless of age, school year, and ethnic origin.

Should we try to reduce the number of boys studying maths to give the girls a chance?

The Culture of Maths

Does Maths have a Gender?

At first glance, it would appear that the gender divide in maths classes is down to the preferences of the students, with boys being more inclined to choose practical and scientific subjects and girls opting for literature, history and art.

All we need to do is take a look at the official figures:

  • industries such as hospitality, social care and teaching are dominated by women
  • there is a high male to female ratio in engineering schools and scientific fields of work

Are Mathematical Brains Male or Female?

Despite these differences, it is important to recognise that it’s girls who leave education with the best grades overall.

From the beginning of their academic careers, male and female pupils maintain different relationships with maths. In year 2, even if they have mastered the basics such as counting, identifying even and odd numbers, doing sums, comparing, rounding, symmetry, telling time and sorting digits into tens and ones, girls choose to spread their concentration over other subjects such as English, whereas boys focus mainly on maths and therefore make faster progress.

Is one gender better at maths? Who comes out on top in maths? ¦ source: Visualhunt – Bart Vermeersch

According to the Ministry of Education in France, just 28% of girls follow a science-based path, compared to 41% of boys, while 17% of girls follow literary courses, compared with only 5% of boys.

How can this phenomenon be explained? Why are girls uninspired by maths?

Childhood Memories

Two researchers Isabelle Régner and Pascal Huguet have studied the question of gender inequality in maths by looking at the reputation of women in mathematical and scientific professions and how this impacts math learning for children and their grades.

In the United States, Claude Steele, a renowned psychologist and professor at Stanford University, studied the reasons that women had lower mathematics scores for college entrance tests than their male counterparts.

He carried out his study by recreating this situation in a laboratory, however, this time, he presented the exams in a neutral way. Surely enough, the results of the tests concluded that when the emphasis on maths is removed, men and women achieve the same scores.

The results of this study show that the underrepresentation of woman in maths is down to them being discouraged from studying science-based subjects.

A New Experience

Régner and Huguet were inspired by the results of this investigation and chose to test out findings with a practical approach.

They asked around 100 children aged 11-13 in groups to make a face. Half of the groups had to make a face with a focus on geometry, and the rest we asked to make a face using art.

The results were as follows:

  • The girls from the geometry group scored less than the boys
  • The boys in the art group scored lower than the girls

The two researchers concluded that even the very idea of having to use math skills was enough to knock the girls off balance.

Evidently, they have a subconscious fear of confronting society’s stereotypes.

So, the question of doing well in maths it not down to gender, however, children are more likely to struggle with the subject if they have a Specific Learning Difficulty such as dyslexia.

The Influence of Culture and Family

The vast majority of our knowledge comes from our childhood. Learning paths can differ between the sexes even at preschool and kindergarten, as children begin to understand the importance of doing well in the school math curriculum for the future.

How does gender affect learning paths? Is the ability to learn math down to gender? ¦ source: Visualhunt – woodleywonderworks

Early on, boys are drawn to maths games involving building and group math activities that develop spatial awareness, while girls are known to prefer playing indoors where they often reproduce traditional social roles (playing families or shops), which helps them practice oral communication skills.

Playing games is how children make sense of the world around them. Teachers and parents can take advantage of this and encourage kids to play math games to help them learn the multiplication table, number lines, number patterns and reinforce things they have previously learnt in class.

Although this clear divide closes over time, it may explain the divergences that occur later on in life when choosing A Level subjects, for example.

Can Things Change?

If things can change, should they?

Most people would say yes.

After all, girls should not feel pressured to take on jobs they don’t enjoy to conform to stereotypes.

So how do you change things? From the earliest possible age, girls and boys should be told that part of their personal preferences is the result of their math education and background, but that, as far as educational and vocational guidance are concerned, it’s up to them what path they choose.

A girl can become a doctor, lawyer, researcher, astronaut just as boys can go down the route of humanities or teaching.

If you want to change things on a deeper level, a change has to take place moving up the generations within the family bubble.

Once children see their parents distributing household chores more equally, hear their parents complement each other and offer to help with housework, it will become normal and almost obvious that there are no ‘boy jobs’ and ‘girl jobs’ and what matter is that the job gets done.

It's up to older generations to give girls a chance with mathematical subjects Too few girls are involved with science ¦ source: Visualhunt – Idaho National Laboratory

This way of thinking applies to all aspects of life, including school math. If girls learn from a young age that they are able to do everything just as well as boys can, they will not be restricted by fears of not conforming to stereotypical ideals.

To succeed in maths, both male and female pupils need a dedicated math teacher to teach them to self-motivate, concentrate and appreciate the role of maths in everyday life.

As a general rule, girls do better overall because they find it easier to concentrate on lessons and get involved with their learning.

The same can sometimes apply to maths, where girls get higher individual grades than boys but boys perform better as a group.

Boys may be better at math concepts like geometry and score higher in logic games because of their increased spatial awareness, however, the female pragmatic approach can prove useful in subjects such as algebra.

One thing is for sure: children much prefer learning at home with the support of their parents or a private math tutor. Removing math practice from the pressure of a classroom by regularly playing free online maths games or free math apps can show children the fun side of the subject.

There are plenty of free math resources online such as printable math worksheets and free games for kids to practice math and do timed quizzes.

Mathematics shows that anything is achievable. So regardless of gender, as long as you try your best in this subject and work hard, the doors of maths graduate schemes and scientific professions will be open for you.


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