The discipline of mathematics is one of the most unbiased of its kind. Anyone can be a mathematician – poor or rich, Asian or African, young or old…boys or girls.
Hmm…that last binary may be up for debate, as recent studies have revealed in India.
With the incidence of school dropouts on the rise, many research organizations have come forward to analyze the phenomenon. One of the by-products of their analyses was to discover that in most scenarios (education board, social and geographical settings, among others), boys seemed to be ahead of girls when it came to scoring well in math.
“The studies have also revealed greater propensity among boys to opt for science subjects as opposed to girls.”
As the cliché goes, girls are believed to be lacking in the practical skills and logical thinking abilities, critical prerequisites to excel at math. However, is there any truth to these clichés or are there social and other factors at play that end up depriving girls in India from pursuing and excelling at STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects?
Can anyone be a mathematician? Let's look more closely at the potential differences in learning math and ways to overcome them.
Gender Bias in Education in India
The under-representation of women in mathematics and science subjects in India is out there for the world to see. Even when compared to other Asian countries, let alone Western ones, India is lagging way behind.
“In Bahrain, women have a 41.3% representation in science research, as compared to India which is tottering at 14.3%”
Cultural Taboo and Economic Pressure
The underwhelming numbers of women in math research and their performance in school maths exams, in general, has a lot to do with cultural as well as economic factors in India. Girls have historically been discouraged from taking up books as their vocation and pushed more into taking up household activities.
Where they do cross the threshold of school life and into college education, again, they can be seen enrolled in vocational courses (e.g. nursing, tailoring etc.) that will stand them in good stead for household life. Seldom do we see girls enrolling in math or science subjects that are viewed as time-consuming and, therefore, harmful to their primary occupation, that is the household.
“Ever wondered why little girls in India are gifted kitchen sets or ‘dolls’ on their birthday?”
In France, boys are only faring marginally better at math than girls (87% to 86.8%), says a study of a class of 14-15 year-olds.
A study published in the Science journal busted the myth of male superiority in the performance of math. The study reveals how a learner’s ability, whether male or female, to understand math, is independent of their gender.
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.
“Unfortunately, despite scientific evidence to the contrary, most Indian parents continue to hold on to the belief that science and math are a male preserve! This stereotype is even encouraged by some ill-informed teachers.”
Math and Indian Culture
From the Classroom to the Workspace
Some of us have been lucky enough to have had the option to choose our own career paths. Some of you, then, had the chance to escape the nightmare of math once school got over, while a few embraced the subject to go on and conduct research on it later in life.
It may even have crossed your mind to question the disparate gender ratio in your humanities or math classes – higher female: male in the former, while the reverse would usually be true in the latter.
“Classroom disparity gets translated into job disparity.”
Industries such as hospitality, social care and teaching are dominated by women, whereas a higher male to female ratio exists in engineering schools and scientific fields of work.
The Mathematical Brain: Masculine or Feminine?
Let us take a moment to consider this: going against the flow of their performance in math, it is usually girls who outperform boys in the overall department of school education. Some of the recent Board exam toppers in India have been girls.
Girls have proven to have varied interests from a young age. This explains, to some extent, why girls choose to spread their concentration over other subjects such as English, whereas boys focus mainly on math and therefore make faster progress. This is not to say that boys don’t take up other subjects!
“How can this phenomenon be explained?”
The Role of Childhood Memories
Psychologists, Isabelle Régner and Pascal Huguet, have looked at the reputation of women in mathematical and scientific professions and tried to uncover its impact on children (both male and female) learning math.
Claude Steele, a renowned psychologist and professor at Stanford University, successfully proved that the underrepresentation of women mathematicians is a direct result of sociocultural restrictions imposed on them.
Steels presented a neutral exam to participants in a controlled laboratory environment, removing the emphasis on mathematics. Remarkably enough, both men and women achieved the same scores!
Does Creativity Matter?
Régner and Huguet, encouraged by the success of Steele’s experiment, decided 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, while the rest had to do it using art.
- 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 the very idea of having to use math skills was enough to knock the girls off balance.
“Can we conclude that girls have a subconscious fear of confronting society's stereotypes? Who is to blame for this?”
So, the question of doing well in math has clearly got nothing to with your gender. Now, that is good news indeed! However, for children with a specific learning difficulty, such as dyslexia, the story might be not so straightforward.
Does Family Play a Role?
We learn the most and the greatest lessons of our lives as children. Our parents are our first teachers. Therefore, our parents are responsible for guiding us through culture and society as well.
Parents are often responsible for reinforcing stereotypical notions in children as well. For example, involving boys in math games, group math activities that develop spatial awareness, while confining daughters to the indoors, as they play-act traditional social roles (playing families or shops), which helps them practice oral communication skills. This 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.
Is Math Tuition Biased?
We have all been there. Cumbersome math tuitions attended by hordes of reluctant boys and girls. We have often wondered, “Why do I have to go through this!” After all, children should not be forced to take on jobs they don't enjoy, especially if it is only for the sake of reinforcing gender stereotypes.
Parents, followed by teachers need to be made aware of the immense psychological harm that arises out of creating so much social pressure on their wards, be it a boy or a girl.
“A girl can become a doctor, lawyer, researcher or an astronaut, just as boys are free to take up teaching or the arts.”
The change also has to infiltrate the household space where equal distribution of chores will teach children the importance of treating everyone as an equal. Obviously, there are 'boys’ jobs' and 'girls’ jobs' and that these are all artificial creations of a society that are outdated.
To succeed in math, it is often advisable for both male and female students to opt for a dedicated math teacher or private tutor who can passionately teach as well as motivate them to love the subject while mastering it. As children get to see the fun side of maths, it automatically translates to better performance in the classroom!
There are plenty of free maths resources online such as printable math worksheets and free games for kids to practice math and do timed quizzes.
The existing gender gap in math skills and ability is clearly related to the level of gender bias in our society. Historically, it has been proven that the gender gap in math tends to disappear in more gender-equal societies.
Mathematics is a great equalizer. Regardless of gender, as long your passion reflects in your work, there will always be a place for you in the halls of this great subject.