Maths, Girls and the Gender Gap

What is it about maths that tends to attract more of the male gender to it than females?  Is it down to chemical make-up and how the male and female brains are wired, or the way it’s taught and presented too male orientated for the female brain to be instantly attracted to it?  Therefore, in either case, unless closely nurtured some girls just don’t buy into it, and it becomes lost.

Shirley Conran (girls maths.1author of Lace) is Maths Action campaigner to persuade school girls that maths is essential if a woman is to get by in life.  Interviewed by the Guardian on “Maths is a feminist issue” She says “You have to get them enthused by maths before puberty, and you have to improve maths books. I went to a bookshop and found that maths books were hopeless. Even the fun ones wouldn’t appeal to girls because they’re full of creepy-crawly things like spiders and caterpillars.”

This lady has a talent for spotting when something is ripe for change, and this one may even be a little over ripe.  It’s time girls were given more nourishment in this area.

Looking at authors of various maths publications, the majority appear to be written by men.  The maths world has always been dominated by men, and for the most part, still is.  So that perhaps says something about how the subject is taught and presented – male skewed.  Just for the record though, I’m not criticising all of the amazing male teachers out there.

So instead of hammering away at ‘you must get C or above in maths or else!’ type of attitude, perhaps it would be helpful to look at it from a female angle.  How can maths appeal more to the female brain? With some adjustment on how it’s taught, and the books that are printed and presented, the interest and engagement would rise and we might just see more of those C and above grades rolling in.  Hopefully that is what is on the agenda especially considering Conran is currently adviser to Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, with the aim of encouraging more girls into STEM subjects.

Even at age 83, when Conran is passionate about something, she runs with it.  She has now launched a four-step maths course for girls Money Stuff, which follows the GCSE syllabus – although, it doesn’t have calculus or trigonometry included because she says “you don’t need them to buy an ice-cream, work in the average business or check your investment portfolio”.  However on the flipside, you do need them when you’re taking your GCSE exams if you want that pass!  So I do wonder what Nicky Morgan’s take is on the dis of calculus and trigonometry by Conran…

On the positive side, as reported in The Times there have never been so many women on British boards, with board seats held by women on the FTSE 100 rising from 12.5% to 26.1% over the course of five years.  Lady Barbara Jude’s take on it is that maths is the route to take if women wish to earn more executive positions.

So attitudes and determination are changing at professional levels, but grades and interest at school aren’t looking so rosy right now, which will impact industries later.  Hence the concerns raised by Morgan and Conran in their mission to enable the upwards curve for girls to flourish in maths and STEM subjects all round.

The National Numeracy study recently revealed that 60% of girls believed they can’t do maths and science.  That is really quite shocking! The girls surveyed, aged 12, felt maths and science was “too difficult” to learn and better suited to boys due to their brains, hobbies and personalities.  They may be right, it could be a gender issue where the majority of boys just enjoy these subjects more than girls?

Possibly, but there is definitely room for improvement – the idea of these subjects, how they are promoted, how they are taught and what you can do with them in the real world.  On the whole they require some repackaging, because it wasn’t until after school that I realised just how fascinating and incredibly useful maths and the other STEM subjects can be.  That realisation needs to occur in girls while they’re at school and early on, to make a big difference to them later.


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