Thursday, May 14, 2009

Why Girls Don't Like Math

A recent episode of Your Voice ("helping parents help their children succeed in school") on Ontario Public Television station TVO took a look at "Why Girls Don't Like Math". The program featured a discussion between Patricia Campbell of Fairer Science, Fiona Dunbar, Lecturer in Math at the University of Waterloo, chair of the university's Women in Mathematics Committee and founder of the Canadian Women in Math Association; and Grade 8 teacher Lukrica Prugo, who has taught an all-girls class for two years. Host Cheryl Johnson set out the background:

According to the experts we spoke with on Your Voice, eight out of ten future jobs will require math skills. This does not bode well for girls, since most girls leave math in the dust after high school, if not before. It's not that girls are not good at math. The most recent EQAO scores from the Education Quality Accountability Office in Ontario show that girls and boys in Grades 3 and 6 achieve at the same levels in math. However, when asked in the EQAO survey about math, far fewer girls say they like math, fewer say they find math relevant, and many more say they need help with math. So.....girls are good at math, but they think they're not.
It's an interesting discussion - well worth watching if you are interested in math education.

Watch "Why Girls Don't Like Math".

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Successful Researcher: How to Become One said...

Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

Ahh the maths issue - I have to admit dropping out of maths 1 year before finishing highschool, because the teaching was just so bad, and I didn't see how relevant it was (and alas, how much I would need it and wish I'd done more). Fast forward 1 bachelors degree, years working as a modeller, and just having finished my PhD (where I was forced to play catch up and teach myself basic calculus, because shock horror - I needed it!), I have struggled unnecessarily because of my very dumb decision to drop maths prematurely. But you know what - I have actually picked up everything I've needed, as I've needed it, though it would have been easier just to stick with it and continue on with it being taught, if that teacher had been competent.

You know what the answer is - for me anyway, it was the fear of failing, and of getting lower grades than in all my other subjects. If maths was taught in a more relevant way, with les emphasis on marks, and more emphasis on understanding and participation (and fun?!), you'd get higher retention rates, it might encourage more students to persist with it - but how many high school students really realise how much they'll need it later on....

Fluxor said...

This was an interesting discussion. During my undergraduate days in electrical engineering, women were few and far in between. Even those that managed to survive the program were typically the weaker students. At the time, my assumption was simply that girls just generally are not very good at the hard sciences. Now that I'm older and two hairs wiser, I wonder whether the girls would have fared better had the teaching environment been different -- less male, if you will.

In my field of analog circuits, women are even rarer still. It seems to me, at least anecdotally, that there's a level of mathematical knowledge of which few women ever decide to cross for whatever reason. This was brought up in the discussion where the ratio of women to men from undergraduate to graduate programs dropped dramatically. I know many math competent women that decided to pursue accounting rather than engineering, where the math involved is much tougher.

I remain doubtful that society will ever produce parity enrollment between the genders in science and engineering. In fact, recent numbers seem to point the other way despite decades of effort to level the playing field.

Azkyroth said...

I wonder if a generational pause in the constant chorus about girls' issues with math would help.

Darwi said...

Well, I was blessed with education in Europe where one cannot drop math in high-school if one wishes to continue with the university education.
But besides that, I never found math boring, challenging yes. (Perhaps that's why I'm now Research Professor in astrophysics.)
Someone mentioned that teachers are important. Well, partly. Again in Europe is not strange to have female math teachers, so the teacher personality is more important than gender.

Anonymous said...

lkjoijl said..

Can we have a translation Ikjoikl?

There are many flaws in Australian education, and yes, one of them is that you can drop maths before you finish highschool. I really regret that decision, particularly as I am now a scientist. But its not hard to catch up, although I am still in the process of it. The problem here in Australia is that maths teaching is so bad (as is science teaching) because all the less academically gifted students go into teaching, and if you have the brains to be good at science, you don't want to end up teaching at highschool level!

I was having this discussion with my sciency friends the other day, and we think that the answer is to start paying teachers more (they're not well pain in Aus), then this will attract a better class of student and this may them lead to a better class of teacher of maths and science. Which will then result in more people staying in science and taking it up as a career. Whether there are then career opportunities for these scientists is questionable - certainly the demand of good academic jobs for scientists is larger than the supply...

Peggy said...

Anonymous @ 3:56: I do think that a lot of kids would do better in math if it was taught differently. Add that to the common assumption that math is just too hard for some people and it's no wonder so many drop it.

Fluxor: I think it's a bit more complicated than women just not being good at or interested in math, because there are a much higher percentage of women in mathematics PhD programs (for example) than in physics or engineering.

Darwi: There was an interesting study that found that how well girls do in math relative to boys varies from country to country. It would make sense that that has to do with both teaching style and local perceptions as to whether girls should be expected to do well in math.

Peggy said...

lkjoijl is a spammer. For some reason blogger is giving me an error every time I try to delete that post, so please just ignore it.

Anon @9:25: I do think the undervaluation of the teaching profession doesn't help the situation. Here in California, teachers don't know whether they will even have jobs in the fall, due to the terrible economic problems the state is having. So poor pay, little job security, a lack of respect - it's no wonder that people with solid backgrounds in math and science choose to work in other fields.