Gender issues in maths: Explanation of attitudes and beliefs

An explanation into the different attitudes and beliefs held students and teachers in relation to gender issues in maths.


Why have these gender differences in performance and participation in mathematics not disappeared, despite widespread agreement that we wish the best educational outcomes for all our students, both girls and boys? What do students themselves think about mathematics?

Students’ beliefs and attitudes are difficult to measure. They are typically inferred from answers to survey items and from observations of students’ behaviours. Pooling results from many different studies, on average:

  • More boys than girls say they like doing mathematics (though for both groups, liking of mathematics decreases as students move into higher grades).
  • More boys than girls are confident they can do well in mathematics.
  • More boys than girls indicate that their parents and teachers expect them to do well in mathematics, though in some recent surveys many girls also say that they believe girls are as good as boys at mathematics.
  • When shown a mathematics question, more boys than girls state that they can solve it correctly.
  • More boys than girls expect to use mathematics in their work.
  • More boys than girls volunteer to answer or ask a question in class.
  • More girls than boys say they like to work with others when doing mathematics.

There is research evidence that, individually or collectively, these gender differences in beliefs and attitudes subtly affect students’ performance and motivation in mathematics. What strategies can teachers constructively implement in their classroom? Examples are provided later.


Engaging and motivating students requires skill, ingenuity, craft, reflection, and self-awareness. We know that some in our society still think that boys are better than girls at mathematics and girls better at English than boys (Leder, Forgasz, & Jackson, 2014).

Might this also be true for some teachers, who themselves are part of the general public? Might they, unintentionally, convey this to their students?

Recent studies

In a recent study (Li & Koch, 2017), teachers were asked to specify whether Year 10 or Year 12 mathematics was required for a range of occupations. A higher proportion of women than men selected the higher level of mathematics for all of the occupations listed, apart from chef and fashion designer. Might this indicate, the researchers asked, that female teachers value the need for mathematics in different careers more highly than male teachers? Might this influence discussions about the usefulness of mathematics and subsequent career choices?

Recent articles

In an influential article (Fennema, Pedro, Wolleat, & Becker, 1981, p. 4) about the impact of different teacher strategies the following teacher-student dialogue was recorded:

Teacher: Have you figured out the answer, Marcia?
Marcia: Uh, no. Not yet.
Teacher: Eric, how about you?
Eric: I can’t get it!
Teacher: Come on, Eric. You can do it. What’s the exponent?
Eric: Oh Yeah, x to the fifth. get it now.

Exchanges such as these, the authors argued, could be interpreted by students as a subtle message that, for their teacher, problem solving is more important for boys than girls. Marcia’s experience this time was one of failure.

By staying with Eric, the teacher encouraged him to persevere and helped him achieve success. What might be the cumulative impact of such interactions?

Previous studies

Previous studies of interactions in mathematics classes have revealed that teachers, on average, spend more time with boys than with girls, interact more frequently with boys than with girls, more often ask boys more challenging questions and girls simpler questions, and offer boys longer wait times (time to provide answers) than girls (Jones & Dindia, 2004; Leder, 1995; Peterson & Fennema, 1985). What subtle message might be inferred from these practices?

Schools, parents and society

A school’s culture might influence students’ beliefs and teachers’ behaviours. For example:

  • School based assessment practices. Are timed tests, on which boys often perform better than girls, the exception or the norm?
  • How students are grouped for learning across and within schools and classrooms (e.g., single sex/ co-education, mixed ability/ability grouping).
  • What beliefs may be reinforced by the different grouping practices?
  • Why might opportunities for collaborative activities in and beyond the classroom be important?
  • Timetabling of subjects and the resulting subject choices that need to be made. What may be implied by particular subjects being blocked together?

Beyond school

Does the content of the print media, films, and TV portrayals of women and men in STEM activities reinforce or challenge stereotypes?

Do the figures in the table below reflect parents’, friends’, and broader society’s attitudes and expectations towards STEM and STEM-related occupations for boys and girls?