Girls and Math: Enough is Known
Girls are taking almost the same number of math courses as boys (2.9 vs. 3.0) however they are less apt to take Trig or Calculus.
In 1979 women accounted for 9% of the science and engineering work force; in 1988 that increased to 16%. However women are 45% of the total work force.
In the last 15 years, many things have changed with regard to girls and math. While boys still outnumber girls in upper-level math, girls are no longer uncommon. And while women are not entering careers that need math in numbers equal to men, neither are women a rarity in these fields. At all levels there has been increased awareness of the underrepresentation of women in math, science, and engineering and what this could mean for the country, as well as for individual women. Calling it an issue of "paramount concern," former National Science Foundation director Erich Block urged Americans to look to under represented minorities and women to meet the growing demand for scientists and engineers in the United States.1
Society's perception of women and math is changing, albeit slowly. Television scenes of mothers telling children to wait for their father for help with math because the mothers were "never any good at math" are being matched by scenes such as the November 1990 "Evening Shade" where the father tells his daughter to wait until her mother gets home to help with math homework because the mother is so much better in math. Even in the movies, women who can't balance their checkbooks are being replaced by women such as the wife in Presumed Innocent who had a Ph.D. in math and a husband who had loved her helping him through algebra. Of course, she was the murderer, but...
"Math gap" narrows
During the past few years, there has been an explosion of research on girls and boys and math. Thanks to research, we now know that sex differences in math achievement are small and declining.
Analysis across hundreds of studies has found that in the general population women and girls outperform men and boys by a very small amount. Females score slightly higher in computation, males slightly higher in complex problem solving, and there are no differences in math concepts.
There are no sex differences in problem solving until high school, when differences favoring males occur. Greater male superiority in math achievement shows up in more academically selective populations.
Analysis of studies done before and after 1974 has found sex differences declining over the years to negligible levels. While women still lag behind in some aspects of spatial abilities and in math achievement at the top levels of mathematics, they are gaining on men in mathematics as a whole.2
Research has also identified at least one of the reasons that boys show more interest in math. Boys in math classes tend to receive more teacher time and attention than girls. Teachers have been found to give boys more praise, more criticism, more remediation, and to be more apt to accept boys' responses. They also respond more frequently to boys' requests for help and talk to boys more about ideas and concepts.3 Boys are much more apt than girls to be in the small group of students who receive most of the teacher's academic time and interest and to receive more encouragement from their parents to take advanced math.4
Giving more attention and resources to boys is so much the norm that teachers who try to give equal attention to girls often feel uncomfortable because they feel the boys are being slighted.5
Questioning a "math gene"
The great preponderance of evidence indicates there is no "math gene." Sex differences in mathematics achievement have become small enough in most areas to become negligible. While society may change fast enough for this to happen, biology doesn't. Genetic differences tend to remain stable, but sex differences in mathematics achievement are decreasing.
Sex differences in such traditionally "masculine" areas as spatial relations have been eliminated by changing teaching practices and providing both girls and boys with opportunities to build their skills.6 Practice can improve many things, but not genes.
The finding that gifted seventh-grade boys are much more likely than girls to score highly on the SAT: Math is often used to justify a biological basis to math sex differences. However, this reasoning is seriously flawed. Fundamental errors occur when researchers "assume that because girls and boys have been in the same math classes they have had the same experiences, assume that differences on SAT, a test the courts have found to be biased against women, are biological, assume that gifted children whose parents pay over $30 for their children to take a test represent the population as a whole, [and] tell girls and boys before they take the SAT that girls "don't do as well as boys!"7
In earlier ages, it was believed that women could not pursue mathematics because their heads were too small, their nervous systems too delicate, or their reasoning capacities insufficient. Even such an eminent educational theorist as Rousseau believed that women were not qualified for research in abstract areas such as mathematics and science because their brains were unfit. While such notions are clearly passe, they do have twentieth century counterparts.8
Changing the question
The question we should be asking is not "is there a math gene?" but rather "Why are there so many fewer women than men in math-related fields, when the sex differences are so small?"
We have been successful in encouraging middle-class girls in math and science at the precollege level, but we have not been as successful at the college level where young women enter math and science fields at much lower rates than young men and also drop out of math and science majors in greater numbers than do similarly talented young men with the same grades.9
We have also not been successful in encouraging low-income girls and girls of color in math and science even at the precollege level. And math is still a critical filter. Low-income students and students of color who take algebra and geometry go to college in numbers equal to wealthier whites. However, only half as many low-income students and students of color take these important course.10
Where to start
The irony is that we know what to do. Based on research and evaluation we know how to get girls to take more math and science.11 Here are some of the strategies that we know work.
The career question
We also know some successful strategies to get girls to consider math and science careers.
While there is much we know, we have several important challenges left to face.
Researchers and practitioners, scholars and activists need to join together, to share what we know and to learn from each other. Those whose major interest is in equity must be involved in math reform efforts to ensure that these efforts are equitable, and those whose major interest is in math reform must be involved in equity efforts to ensure that these efforts are effective.
As Paul Tsongas reminds us, "Equal opportunity, we have learned, is more than an open gate. It is the appropriate complement of skills and fundamental self-esteem that makes the open gate meaningful. To just open the gate is to engage in a cruel gesture, no matter how innocently it is done."19
The gate is opening, much of the knowledge is there. It is up to us whether girls are offered a real chance or just a cruel gesture.
For further reading on Dr. Campbell's research, see her article "So What Do We Do with the Poor, Non-White Female? Issues of Gender, Race, and Social Class in Mathematics and Equity," in Peabody Journal of Education (vol. 66, no. 2 [dated Winter 1989; forthcoming 1991]).
Education Development Center
As the nation moves closer to the year 2000 and to a new vision of education under the National Education Goals, academics, researchers, and classroom teachers are looking at ways in which to both examine and rectify inequities in mathematics instruction. Some, like Elizabeth Fennema at the University of Wisconsin are exploring the development of cognitively based instruction as a way to increase equity in the teaching and learning of mathematics. Others, like the Family Math Program at Berkeley, work directly in communities and schools to introduce new approaches to teaching.
And, beyond this is the development of new discussions around gender, race, language, or ethnic differentiation within mathematics education. Although Fennema's work is one attempt to create an education model that focuses on cognitive rather than affective issues, very little has yet been done to explore what is happening in terms of perceived or actual equity within mathematics classroom. For instance, even within mathematics software development, many developers have admitted that in their focus on creating good software, they have not yet begun to look at the issues of gender differentiation as they apply to the use of their models.
Some groundwork for such an exploration of gender and race differentiation within mathematics instruction has been set by discussions within the Urban Mathematics Collaboratives (UMC). This Ford Foundation-funded effort to improve mathematics instruction around the country currently supports collaboratives in 14 cities. UMC teachers, who work across the spectrum of K-12 mathematics education in urban schools, have had to deal directly with issues of equity since their students reflect the racial, ethnic, and linguistic diversity of our cities. Together with the UMC Outreach Project at EDC, UMC teachers have drafted a strong policy statement on equity in mathematics education that can serve as a guide for all educators. We quote here from that statement as one approach to reform in mathematics education that can provide a basis for dialogue.
The paper recognizes that:
"until recently, the United States had been able to meet its needs for a mathematically trained workforce by providing advanced study for a small, elite segment of its school population, typically Anglo and male. In part, too, however, the causes [of inequity] lay with mathematics education and with the disjuncture between schools and the lives of their students. Mathematics curriculum, textbooks, and instruction often failed to speak to the lives and concerns of females and other under represented groups. Consequently, these groups were cut off from real opportunities for success in mathematics."
The UMC statement also recognizes that the kinds of changes that must be made cannot be made by teachers alone. "The success of mathematics teachers depends, in part, on the commitment of others with a stake in mathematics education-students, parents, representatives of business and industry, textbook and test publishers, university faculty in mathematics and mathematics education, and district administrators responsible for mathematics programs." Together these groups can begin to solve the inequity in mathematics learning. For those who believe that mathematics programs must serve all students as a means of ensuring equal opportunity and strengthening the nation's social and economic institutions, UMC offers a view of equity embodied in six propositions.
For a copy of the complete UMC policy statement, or for information on other equity work going on in mathematics and science, contact the WEEA Publishing Center.
Education Development Center (EDC), Inc.
Over the last 15 years the Women's Educational Equity Act (WEEA) Program has funded a number of projects that have addressed the issues surrounding females and the study of math. The WEEA Publishing Center carries many innovative and proven curricula developed by these projects.
Add-Ventures for Girls: Building Math Confidence combines teacher development and empowerment with the strategies that we know work in teaching girls. Called "a major breakthrough in creating a more equitable mathematics environment," this teacher-developed program educates teachers on issues related to girls and math-attitudes, making math relevant, the learning environment, computers, test-taking skills, and more-and then presents specific strategies and activities that address these issues.
Add-Ventures for Girls is available in two volumes, one for elementary teachers and one for middle school teachers, thereby helping girls get a good start in math. Sections in both volumes help teachers plan practical steps to involve parents, school counselors, administrators, and other teachers in encouraging math for girls.
Developed through a 1989 WEEA grant is a series of brochures by Dr. Patricia Campbell that highlight her latest research on effective strategies for encouraging girls in math, science, and engineering. The brochures are aimed at different groups, including parents, teachers, and program administrators. They translate research into practical strategies for designing effective programs, for evaluating programs, for collaboration between schools and outside programs, and for helping parents to encourage their girls in math and science.
A curriculum entitled Science Equals Success contains over 30 activities that utilize approaches identified by the nationally recognized EQUALS Program as being particularly success with girls. These activities are designed for girls in grades 4-9, and work to interest and motivate girls during one of the critical periods when many lose interest in math and science.
A number of WEEA products address specific issues in teaching and learning math. Spatial Encounters is a self-directed program for all ages that helps students develop and practice spatial visualization and orientation skills-tools that help students in classes such as geometry and that are necessary in many math- and science-related professions.
One of the recommended strategies for making math relevant for girls is to discuss career options in math- and science-related fields. A number of WEEA products do this, in ways that appeal particularly to girls, including How High the Sky? How Far the Moon? An Educational Program for Girls and Women in Math and Science.
Math anxiety is a common reason some female students have trouble in mathematics courses. A Mindset for Math: Techniques for Identifying and Working with Math-Anxious Girls helps teachers reduce math anxiety among upper elementary and middle school students. And Developing Math Learning Skills: A Parallel Support Course for the Math-Anxious Student helps adult students or program participants develop successful strategies for learning and enjoying mathematics.
To order WEEA materials call our distribution center at 800-793-5076. Prices are subject to change.
Add-Ventures for Girls: Building Math Confidence
Encouraging Girls in Math and Science Series
"Nothing Can Stop Us Now: Designing Effective Programs for Girls
in Math, Science and Engineering" (#2739 $18.00)
"Working Together, Making Changes: Working in
and out of School to Encourage Girls in Math and Science" (#2737
"What Works and What Doesn't: Ways to Evaluate
Programs for Girls in Math, Science, and Engineering" (#2740 $18.00)
"Math, Science, and Your Daughter: What Can Parents
Do?" (#2738 $18.00)
Science EQUALS Success (#2711 $25.00)
Spatial Encounters (#2434 $40.00)
How High the Sky? How Far the Moon? An Educational
Program for Girls and Women in Math and Science (#2104 $21.00)
Developing Math Learning Skills: A Parallel Support
Course for the Math-Anxious Student (#2702 $10.00)
Teaching Mathematics Effectively and Equitably to Females.(#2744
Building Self: Adolescent Girls and Self-Esteem (#2745 $6.00)
Outlines the key factors that make up self-esteem and reviews those that put young women at risk for low self-esteem.
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