What Can We Do about Gender Differences in Math?

  • What Can We Do about Gender Differences in Math?

    By Colleen Ganley and Sarah Lubienski, posted May 23, 2016 —

    In our last post, we summarized the current state of research on gender differences in mathematics. Taken together, the research suggests that although gender differences in math are small, some differences still exist in mathematics skills, attitudes, and career choices that we should pay attention to. Considering the research presented in our previous post in a historical context is important, as gender differences in math course-taking, achievement, and career plans have decreased drastically over time, and these differences vary in different countries. These facts suggest that we can reduce gender differences in math and math-related careers because we already have!

    However, progress seems to have stalled, as gaps in key math-related careers remain large. This has serious implications for women and for workforce quality. For example, according to U.S. census data, women over the age of 25 who are employed full-time still earned only 82 percent of comparable men’s salaries in 2014; and it is even more drastic, 77 percent, among college-educated men and women. Some of this income disparity is attributable to the fact that more men pursue math-related careers, as data show that both women and men in those fields earn more than their counterparts in other fields.

    Some potential directions for addressing gender disparities in mathematics classrooms include the following:

    1.   Interventions to support girls in math should begin earlier and be part of the regular classroom. Given that gender differences in math achievement, and especially attitudes, develop early, programs targeting gender disparities in middle and high school might be too late. Educators and researchers should consider ways to address gender disparities during elementary grades. Typically, interventions for girls in math have tended to be short, separate experiences outside the regular classroom, such as summer camps or after-school programs. We must also work to change girls’ everyday experiences within their classrooms.

    2016-05-23 art12.   We should encourage the development of girls’ spatial and problem-solving skills. Teachers should pose problems that cannot be solved in routine ways and encourage diverse methods of problem solving. Throughout the year, teachers should attempt to notice and praise girls when they find novel ways to solve problems, as opposed to relying on procedures they have been taught (even if those procedures produce the expected, right answer). NCTM has published Implementing the Common Core State Standards through Mathematical Problem Solving: Kindergarten–Grade 2 and Implementing the Common Core State Standards through Mathematical Problem Solving Grades 3–5, two resources that provide assistance in helping students become better problem solvers. Teachers can also find ways to connect spatial thinking to mathematics content and encourage both girls and boys to tap into this type of thinking. For concrete ideas about how to incorporate spatial skills into elementary math instruction, see “Picture This: Increasing Math and Science Learning by Improving Spatial Skills” by Nora S. Newcombe.

    3.   Girls’ perceptions of themselves as mathematicians need to be improved. Given that girls’ math anxiety and lack of confidence are critical predictors of later attitudes, achievement, and career choices, elementary school teachers should strive to enhance girls’ mathematical confidence. Female teachers can begin by displaying such confidence in the classroom themselves, modeling a spirit of exploration and curiosity in the face of mathematical uncertainty. Additionally, given research suggesting that girls gravitate toward professions that “help people,” teachers should expose their students to ways that math-intensive careers (e.g., engineering) can, indeed be helpful to others.

    One important consideration about these recommendations is that, although these may be especially important for girls, incorporating these recommendations into the regular classroom should help all students be better math learners. With some work, we should be able to improve the math achievement of all students while narrowing the gender gap in areas in which they remain. Despite some current differences in girls’ and boys’ math performance, attitudes, and career interests, evidence points to a number of cultural and environmental factors that affect these disparities and that we can address.


    Let’s keep this conversation on gender differences in mathematics going. We want to hear from you! Post your comments below or share your thoughts on Twitter @TCM_at_NCTM using #TCMtalk.

    Note: This blog post is based on the upcoming chapter “Research on Gender and Mathematics,” which will appear in the First Compendium for Research in Mathematics Education (edited by Jinfa Cai, published by NCTM).

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    Colleen Ganley is an assistant professor of Developmental Psychology and at the Florida Center for Research in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (FCR-STEM) at Florida State University in Tallahassee. Dr. Ganley’s research interests involve understanding the social, cognitive, and affective factors related to math learning and achievement with a specific interest in individual differences related to gender and income level. Sarah Lubienski is a professor of mathematics education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Dr. Lubienski’s research focuses on mathematics achievement, instruction, equity and reform. She has used both quantitative and qualitative methods to study students, parents, and teachers in districts undertaking mathematics reform. 

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