Gender issues in Maths

The big picture: Introduction

"What if we lived in a world without mathematics?" Australia's Chief Scientist (Finkel, 2017, p. 3) asked rhetorically.
"…Take away numbers, and you take away commerce, farming, medicine, music, architecture, cartography, cooking, sport… and every other activity we've invented since 3000 B.C."

Historically, mathematics (and science) and related careers have been viewed as fields more suitable for boys and men than for girls and women. While there have been some advances made over time, gender remains a factor impacting on:

  • achievement in mathematics.
  • attitudes about mathematics and towards
  • oneself as a learner of mathematics, and
  • in participation rates in mathematics once it is no longer compulsory.

The latter impacts on future career options and opportunities.

According to the Prinsley, Beavis, and Clifford-Hordacre (2016, p. 1): Girls and women represent untapped talent. Enabling them to realise their potential is about both economic growth and social justice. In order to address the gender differences in mathematics learning outcomes that are found, most often favouring boys and men, it is important to understand the underlying reasons.

Following a summary of the definitions of key terms, we:

  • present research-based evidence supporting our claims of gender differences in mathematics learning outcomes.
  • describe the challenges and barriers that teachers may face when addressing gender inequities in mathematics learning.
  • provide resources and activities to assist teachers in this area.

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Gender and Mathematics: Supplementary materials

Key terms and definitions

It is important to know how gender is defined and used in this monograph, and how sex and gender differ.

Explore a list of words and terms associated with gender and mathematics learning.

Gender

Part of a person’s personal and social identity. It refers to the way a person feels, presents, and is recognised within the community. A person’s gender may be reflected in outward social markers, including their name, outward appearance, mannerisms and dress.

Notes

Definition drawn from Australian Government (2015): “The preferred Australian Government approach is to collect and use gender information” (p. 4).

The categories of ‘gender’ to be used for government data gathering are: M (male), F (female) or X (Indeterminate/Intersex/Unspecified).

Gender categories

A mixture of categories for gender self-identification has been used. Historically (traditionally), the binary categorisations of: M (male) and F (female), or boys and girls, or men and women have been used.

A third category, for those who identify as non-binary (or “X”), consistent with Australian Government (2015) guidelines, is being added. Another term commonly used for non-binary is gender diverse.

Notes

While some researchers are adamant that the binary categories of ‘male’ and ‘female’ as gender identifiers are inappropriate, many researchers continue to use these terms.

Since the study of “gender differences” with respect to mathematics learning has generally focussed on the binary categories of Males/Boys/Men and Females/Girls/Women, in this monograph we focus on these two categories. At the same time, we wish to emphasize that we recognise that there are a number of individuals who self-identify as nonbinary; we do not discuss findings for this third category here.

Sex

The chromosomal, gonadal, and anatomical characteristics associated with biological sex.

The categories of ‘sex’ to be used for government data gathering are: M (male), F (female) or X (indeterminate/intersex/unspecified). 

Notes

This definition is drawn from Australian government (2015). Mathematics education researchers generally do not gather data on biological sex.

Intersex

People who are born with genetic, hormonal, or physical sex characteristics that are not typically ‘male’ or ‘female’. Intersex people have a diversity of bodies and gender identities, and may identify as male or female or neither.

Notes

This definition is drawn from Australian government (2015).

Although sex and gender are conceptually distinct, these terms are commonly used interchangeably, including in legislation (Australian Government, 2015, p. 4). Although usage in research has changed over time, regrettably some mathematics education researchers still use the terms loosely.