What Can We Do about Gender Differences in Math?
By Colleen Ganley and Sarah Lubienski, posted
May 23, 2016 —
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!
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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.
I am a third grade teacher and have recently studied our state assessment and final yearly grades for the past three years. I was saddened to find that girls performed at an extremely lower success rate than boys. I am looking for ways to educate our staff on this issue and combat this problem. Besides awareness, are there any other strategies anyone is aware of that have worked in the elementary setting?