What is your image of a ‘professional’ mathematician? What do our students think a ‘real-life’ mathematician is like? How does this image affect our students’ academic choices, is it different for male and female students, and what can teachers and schools do to counter negative images and their effects? Participation in Mathematics and Further Mathematics at A Level in England and Wales has steadily increased in recent years – good news – but the ratio of girls to boys continues to be significantly unbalanced, at about 1:2 for Mathematics and 1:3 for Further Mathematics (Smith and Golding 2015b). A number of research studies have been undertaken on participation in general, with some focussing on gender in particular, including a current four-year project run by the Further Mathematics Support Programme (FMSP).
It has been widely established that there are five key factors that influence pupils’ continuing with Mathematics at AS and A2 level: “prior attainment in mathematics, enjoyment, perceived competence, interest in mathematics, and awareness of the utility of mathematics for supporting access to other areas” (Smith 2014). Gender, along with factors such as ethnicity and socioeconomic status, can be considered as a significant background factor interacting with the five key ones. Mendick (whose article A Mathematician Goes to the Movies we looked at this time last year) et al (2008), via the perspective of gender, examined representations of mathematics and mathematicians in popular culture and the effects of these representations. They found the typical view of mathematicians to be old, white, middle-class, heterosexual men, characterised as having mental health problems and being socially incompetent, and “whose obsession for mathematics has colonised their entire personality” (p.18). Women’s contributions ”disappeared”; women were seen as appendages to ‘greater’ male mathematicians. Mathematics was found to be associated with masculine attributes, heroic and powerful, while outstanding abilities were ‘natural’ not acquired. The research found these images were held even as people recognised they were stereotypical (pp. 32 – 33). In contrast there was some evidence from ‘texts’ such as television programmes, advertisements, newspaper and magazine articles, websites and books of “a growing trend of young, attractive, ‘smart girls’” as well as the portrayal “of mathematics as beautiful, often linked to pattern and nature” and associating the process of doing mathematics with “artistic, musical and other forms of creativity”, rather than the subject being set in stone.
So what encourages girls’ participation at A Level Mathematics? Smith and Golding (2015b) at the Institute of Education, UCL, as part of a continuing FMSP project on “Gender and Participation in Mathematics and Further Mathematics”, reported on their initial findings through their research on ‘good practice’ in four schools and a Further Education college. While there were no initiatives aimed specifically at girls, three themes emerged: “pathway career thinking, robust emotional encouragement, and flexible cognitive support for working with challenge”. Firstly, mathematics was promoted as a subject of “wide and multiple applicability rather than access to specific or elite courses”. Secondly, teachers’ confidence in their students was overtly acknowledged and relationships were established “in which all the students’ feelings and ways of working were known to the teacher, and vice versa.”
The researchers identified the combination of the third theme with the first two as key to success: offering “multiple and flexible opportunities to meet mathematical difficulties” and emphasising that “students should not expect single contacts in lessons to suffice to develop deep understanding.” Girls valued teachers who managed lessons, or provided opportunities outside of class, to allow for “low-key conversations” to check understanding and “who were good at explaining ideas in a variety of ways, rather than just repeating the same explanation, showing the value they placed on teachers who could combine their knowledge of students with good pedagogic knowledge of mathematics”. Girls enjoyed the “experiences of struggle, support and success”, “but not about feeling pressured to go faster than they could understand”; “they enjoyed the experience of personal achievement coming out of strong supportive class- and teacher-relationships”.
So three factors emerge as key to girls’ take-up of mathematics: sound knowledge preparation, individual teacher encouragement and supportive peer relationships.
Gendered stereotyping, the research suggests, is very nuanced. The Campaign for Science and Engineering considers the message “STEM is for girls too” reinforces the STEM and gender stereotypes (CaSE 2014). Rather, a diverse range of images should be used: “young and old mathematics users, attractive and not attractive, sporty and not sporty, with a particular focus on users of average ability and career success.” (Smith 2014).
The University of Nottingham has produced a number of videos where women explain how and why they took up jobs involving mathematics. A wide range of biographies of professional mathematicians is available at the Facebook page Women In Mathematics. The Institute of Mathematics and its Applications (IMA) manages the website Maths Careers which features a wide range of people using mathematics in their work.
FMSP has provided a number of resources and further details of their project Encouraging Girls to Take Mathematics, while the Institute of Education at UCL has the research project Supporting Advanced Mathematics.
In addition to the findings from the 'good practice' cases above, Mendick et al (2008), Smith (2014), and the FMSP Increasing Girls' Participation in Mathematics Briefing Document make a number of easy-to-implement recommendations.
CaSE. (2014). Improving Diversity in STEM: A report by the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE). Campaign for Science and Engineering.
Mendick, H. (2007) ‘I could always just play’: gender and mathematical ability.
Mendick, H., Moreau, M-P. and Hollingsworth, S. (2008) Mathematical Images and Gender Identities: A report on the gendering of representations of mathematics and mathematicians in popular culture and their influences on learners. Project Report. UK Resource Centre for Women in Science Engineering and Technology, Bradford. Goldsmiths Research Online.
Smith, C. (2014) Gender and participation in mathematics and further mathematics A-levels: a literature review for the Further Mathematics Support Programme.
Smith, C. and Golding, J. (2015a) Gender and Participation in Mathematics and Further Mathematics: Interim Report for the Further Mathematics Support Programme.
Smith, C. and Golding, J. (2015b) Raising girls’ participation in A-level mathematics: initial findings from ‘good practice’ case studies. Edams, G. (ed.) Proceedings of the British Society for Research into Learning Mathematics 35(1), 72 – 77.