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Girls and Math: Achieving Equality in Mathematics Education
March 18, 2002
Historically, females who displayed an interest in or wished to pursue an academic career were considered as "unfeminine" and "unattractive." Those who did venture down that path could become educators under false identities, either disguised as men, or perhaps forced to lecture under a male predecessors names. Joining the convent was another commonality; if a woman was academically inclined it was assumed that "there is usually something wrong with her sexual organs" (Nietzsche- reported by Gutbezahl) , so the opportunity to become educated however celibate as a nun seemed like a good option. Inherited beliefs of what was the "proper" way for young ladies to behave were how many women made their choices early on. Mothers, aunts, female role-models were often reminiscent of the stereotypical female roles (homemaker, seamstress, or a cook...); it has also been observed that many young women who did pursue an academic career were often times encouraged by the male(s) in their life. Mathematics especially was a subject that was deemed much too difficult for the female brain to comprehend. Historically, it was never acknowledged that there are different approaches in the female verses male learning processes. Over time this fact has changed dramatically, albeit today young women are still underrepresented in the world of mathematics. It has been suggested that perhaps it is an "environmental" factor, that the thousands of years of social conditioning that is the essence behind the female attitudes and learning habits toward mathematics. Or perhaps, maybe, that it is biological, that the differences are imbedded into our physiological makeup ('~he Current Situation.") Although these thoughts are important, they mostly only answer the question of "why" women do not extend themselves into the mathematical realm. It becomes increasingly important to look beyond that, and discover "how" and "what" actions must occur in order to make this change happen.
In her book, Mathematics and Gender, Elizabeth Fennema states that the main goal for most math & gender studies is to obtain and promote ways of equality in mathematics learning and teaching. The dictionary definition of equality is highlighted by two terms, fairness and impartiality, both of which still remain to be proven in the research on mathematics education. Attempting to acclaim 'justice" in the mathematics education circle is defined in three separate "Equity" scenarios: (1) Equity as equal educational opportunity, (2) equity as equal educational treatment, (3) equity as equal educational outcome. It is important to look at equity in each of these sections. to help define the meaning of equity in the context of mathematics learning.
Equity as an educational opportunity" - initially teachers teach their classes with no acknowledgement or consideration of different learning processes in males and females. As children progress in the educational "ladder" a different pattern begins to appear. Students either go down separate tracks or the study of mathematics becomes an option. When it comes down to who took the more advanced mathematics courses, it was the males. In legal terms 'equity' is construed as equal opportunity.. even when legal equity exists an observation of actual practice uncovers that there is not equality in mathematics (Fennema 3, 1990). "Equity as equal educational Treatment"- in other words defined as equality of mathematical experiences in school. If this definition were true then it would be virtually impossible to detect any discrepancies between males' and females' interaction with the teacher in the classroom. "Equity as Equal Educational Outcomes"- defined, there would be no differences in the attainment of important educational outcomes for males and females. Males, more than females, are able to successfully shift the math learning from the classroom to real-life complex problem solving, even when they are involved in the same classes. Personal belief systems also play a large part in whether or not to pursue a mathematics-related career. If females are conditioned to believe their performance in advanced math can only be to a certain level then their determination to learn will be cut-off early. "Thus it is clear that, if justice is equity in outcomes of mathematics education, justice for the sexes has not yet been achieved" (Fennema4, .1990).
Once schooling is complete there must be no differential treatment of males and females, there should be no difference in the information learned or presented, and there should not be any gender differences in how students feel about themselves as learners of mathematics (Fennema 5, 1990). Justice has not been served by any of these three definitions of equity.
Social Conditioning/Environmental Variables affecting
Equity in Mathematics learning for Girls
Most studies conducted on female verses male achievements in mathematics have been based on a scale of male mathematics standards. This is stating that females' achievements and beliefs about themselves should be compared to males', not a same gender comparison (Fennema 1, 1990). So, right from the start these results of course show that females come to believe they are not as capable, not as apt to learn as much as males, and exhibit a lower confidence level. The belief systems and teaching practices stemming from here usually result in a biased opinion for most of society. There are teachers and researchers that claim girls and boys do not differ in their capability to learn
mathematics, however, the differential classroom treatment still occurs. It occurs because the belief systems and social conditioning patterns go hand-in-hand. Female achievement is not measured on an unbiased scale, so it becomes impossible to determine the full implications of female math achievement. (Fennema 1, 1990)
It is not until around age 10 or by the time they enter third grade that many female students tend to shy away from participation in math class and math related topics- this is attributed to the social conditioning. (Gutbezahl) According to Gutbezahl's research she also reported "no significant differences between boys' and girls' math achievement in elementary school, and few differences at any age." (Gutbezahl 1) Each of these statements represents a slightly different viewpoint. "Females are socialized from the time they are very young to avoid risk taking- and in the culture of the United States mathematics or technology may be seen as risky business for females (The Current Situation). From the day of their births, females may be put into a corner with negative (socially speaking) expectations cast upon them. The media, their peers and parents all have various expectations of the females' role. Their skills, their self imposed academic expectations and achievements are different from the males in their lives. While some of these expectations may be positive, to the older females it becomes more apparent that society has stilt deemed only certain activities as acceptable for females in our world. The perception of what role girls should play, at least socially speaking in the classroom, does not include an aggressive move toward math participation. No matter how much energy a teacher may put toward wanting to see the equality in the students it will never happen without sufficient positive reinforcement from the outside influences - in other words, attitudes must change in order to bridge the gap (ERIC digest- Schwartz & Hanson 1992.)
Influences in the Home
The change in attitude toward math learning for females should initially begin in the home environment. Parents and or caretakers must allow young females to participate in playing with toys that will enhance their future math abilities. These toys can enhance spatial understanding, ultimately creating a better grasp on aspects of geometry, calculus, and trigonometry. By playing with "action" toys, males become comfortable in their physical world, therefore they are able to easily visualize a three-dimensional object, and understand the function of velocity and angles. (ERIC digest- Schwartz &Hanson. 1992) Whereas females must construct these mathematical concepts without any prior (or minimal) child-play experience, seemingly it has no connection for them to their process of learning mathematics. Confidence and control will be instilled in young females, so when they get to school there is already a positive path toward mathematics. "As children
grow, they are often unconsciously encouraged to adopt sex-stereotyped roles." (The Current Situation) It is up to the parents and caretakers to take a CONSCIOUS role in enforcing positive thoughts and actions toward highlighting mathematics as a viable subject of interest to pursue. Once the female children leave the care of their homes, school is the next major feat to overcome. Schools are overrun with teachers who are uneducated in new methods of teaching, methods that have the possibility of making mathematics "accessible" and "attractive" to females. Programs and alternative teaching styles are more readily available and give being implemented with extensive care. Again, it is not only going to be the teachers who will make the opportunities happen. As girls progress into the classroom the parent- teacher relationship, and a positive and understanding teacher-student relationship is critical in the overall process to boost female success in mathematics or math related subjects.
For classrooms in America, the overall understanding is that there are no intentional obstacles (on the school or teachers' part) that attempt to divert females from electing mathematics courses- the message being that the freedom to elect math as an academic interest is available. It is simply deduced that because there is equal opportunity in electing math classes and not tracking by sex, then there is in turn "equity" in mathematics. However, from further observation, it will be noted that the realistic occurrence is that males (once in secondary school) will elect to take more advanced math classes than females (Fennema 3, 1990). It is when the taking of mathematics courses becomes optional that the difference of males' verses female enrollment begins to shows up. Becoming acquainted with the '~ language" of mathematics is crucial at an early age, this will assure continued success of females in the subject of mathematics. Another observation is the interaction between teachers and boys - it is more prominent, the boys command more attention, thus receiving more of the teacher's time. (cited in The Current Situation) However, according to Fennema, there is no positive proof that increased interaction between girls and their teachers will drastically improve girls' attitudes toward math learning. (Fennema, 2-2002) It is merely the effect from the cause of so many other observed differences in math learning that may affect these processes.
In the classroom, the "Differential Discourse" (classroom communication and dialogue) becomes quite evident when females and males work so closely together in a consistent manner. Females are taught for the most part to be verbally communicative, to work in groups, and often feel the need to include others. Males, on the other hand are able to use their child play abilities to quickly grasp the mathematics language and concepts that are now formally taught in the classroom. They are also more adept at
performing on an individualized basis (ERIC digest- Schwartz & Hanson 1992.) It is evident that the overall message that "math is for males." Again, the social conditioning factor lends its hand in the reasoning behind these differences in the classroom. Under such circumstances, the feeling of intimidation and dismay over math for females in the classroom is not a wonder. In a study conducted by Kraemer and Treichler (noted in The Current Situation), men and women in a college setting were interviewed and asked to make statements of opinion on the structure of the learning process (between males and females).
As to whether or not they thought there were "differential discourse styles" appeared in their answers, the women focused on "mutual support and the building of collaborative knowledge" and the males based their focus on "individual expertise and the presentation and debate around abstract concepts." However, it is not the meshing of the two thoughts that make for an equal opportunity learning environment, in fact there is no meshing, only more segregation. It is the way in which the discourse is acted out, and it is most often in the traditional "non-personal hierarchical classroom" structure (in support of the male discourse model) that is most prominent. It is the teacher's position to curb this process and redirect it to become less hierarchical and more inclusive of all students in both genders at every level of learning capacity.
The lack of confidence to perform well in math courses will affect females the whole way through their academic careers, starting in elementary school and continuing through college. Overall, confidence will influence a students' willingness to attempt new material and to persist when the material becomes too challenging (Fennema- Meyer, Koehler 61, 1990). Confidence is also reflected in a women's continued participation in advanced math courses and career aspirations in quantitative fields. As Leder points out, just because a female performs lower in mathematics, it is not so much the function of inability, rather it is the "internalization of, and conforming to, the expectations of others" (Leder 20, 1990). Attempting to show the usefulness of mathematics for females is another obstacle to overcome. If the usefulness of mathematics can be exemplified through women role models with careers that utilize math in a variety of ways, then females will be more apt to pursue an advanced education. In Marla Parker's book, She Does Math. it features many different women with jobs ranging from Civil Engineering to Environmental Psychology to Fish Pathology- all using mathematics but in a wide variety of ways. Each woman tells her own story - how she got into that particular position and why they feel so strongly toward a robust math learning experience. After each section there are actual problems shown, problems that they can encounter on a daily basis (Parker 1995). This book is not only motivational for a woman pursuing a future
career in a math-related field but is also realistic. Showing the possibilities for the future are important but the more relevant (especially for young females) is their present learning environment.
Achieving equity in the mathematics field is a subject that encompasses many variables. It is unfortunate that most of these variables always refer back to the environmental and social conditioning. For the most part, the mathematics learning opportunities for females are not even given a chance. Before most females can walk or even talk, their destiny in math or a math-related field has been pre-determined. The process by which our society is going through to improve this experience has been slow and in many cases ineffective. The variables discussed within this paper are only a small part of how and what needs to be done in order to achieve justice in the quest for equality.
There is no question about it, equality in math education must be achieved, through influences in the home, treatment in school (integration programs), and interaction between peers- equal math learning opportunities shall be accomplished.
www.ed.gov/databases/ERIC Digests/ed344977.html accessed on March 1, 2002
Schwartz, Wendy Hanson - Hanson, Katherine
Equal Mathematics Education for Female Students ERIC/CUE Digest. #78
The Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC)
http://eric-web.tc.colombia.edu/monographs/ti 17 current.html accessed on March 1,2002
The Current Situation
accessed on March 10, 2002 Elizabeth Fennema Gender Equity in Mathematics and Science
Fennema, E. (1990) "Justice, Equity, and Mathematics Education" in
Fennema, E. & Leder, C. Mathematics and Gender. New York, NY:
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Leder, C. (1990) "Gender Differences in Mathematics" in Fennema, E. &
Leder, G. Mathematics and Gender. New York, NY: Teacher's College
Meyer, M. (1990) "Internal Influences on Gender Differences in
Mathematics" in Fennema, E. & Leder, C. Mathematics and Gender New
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Parker, M. (1995) She Does Math! Real Life Problems from Women on the job Washington D.C. The Mathematical Association of America.
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