Math Forum 'math doctors' on math education

Subject: Increasing Women's Participation in Math

Help Desk
Date: 12/09/96
From: (Pettipas Heidi S)
Subject: Women in Mathematics

I am a Queen's University student (Ontario, Canada) who recently finished her first practicum. I helped instruct mathematics at the secondary level. In my classes I noticed a gender dichotomy. How can I help to make mathematics education more accessible to women? Thank you for your time.

Heidi Pettipas

Date: 12/11/96 at 21:07:42
From: Doctors Daniel and Rachel
Subject: Re: Women in Mathematics

Hi Heidi,

Wow! That's quite a hard problem indeed.

Probably one of the best ways that you can help to make mathematics education more accessible to women is to keep teaching it at the secondary level. Many young women become frustrated with math as they get older because they never see any women teaching it. The more female role models there are, the better. Ironically, secondary school often comes too late in the young woman's mathematical career to make a difference. Most people believe that primary education must be attended to before secondary education. This does not mean, however, that you cannot make a significant difference as a secondary teacher. Mathematics needs women wherever it can find it. If you can learn to teach in a way that keeps women interested while still being fair and interesting to men, this will be of great service to all people involved in math!

Finding out how to teach math in a way that makes it accessible to both women and men is, obviously, extremely difficult. You, however, are in a perfect position to learn how to do this because you haven't been teaching from the same lesson plan for the last 30 years. There is a ton of research out there that you will probably find useful because it may give you an idea of what to do and what not to do. One book I found fairly offensive wasTeaching the Majority, which suggested that the correct way to teach mathematics was to make it more accessible to girls by talking about shopping, cooking, and such. I thought that was really inappropriate, but the authors (who claimed feminist credentials) were very much in favor of it. There are many books, however, on the topic of gender and education, so you will probably be able to find something to your liking.

Something that seems to have been studied more than women's participation in mathematics is women's participation in science. This is a good subject to look at if you want to learn about women and math because much of the research comes to similar conclusions about how to get young women interested in math and science classes. Furthermore, math forms a crucial basis for many higher-level sciences, so researchers exploring why more women are not involved in science (particularily physics) often start by looking at why women are not getting the math background they need. This almost always leads to a discussion of how math and science education should be changed in order to keep more girls involved in these subjects (which is what I think you're interested in).

A note of warning: remember that like all researchers, those who are dealing with gender issues tend to do research that allows them to see what they want to see. So be sure to carefully evaluate everything that you read (for example in Teaching the Majority). It's very easy to obfuscate the truth when using statistics, so make sure that you understand exactly what the researchers are trying to find and how they're going about finding it. People love to find gender dichotomies (for whatever reason) when it really may be better to look at men and women as being more similar than different.

Journals (especially psychology ones) often yield the most up to date and useful data, so they are a good place to start looking, but books often provide a more in-depth discussion. Here are some books that might prove useful:

  1. Boland (ed): Gender-Fair Math.
  2. Burton, Leone (ed): Gender and Mathematics: an International Perspective.
  3. Burton, Leone (ed): Girls Into Maths Can Go.
  4. Fenneman, Elizabeth and Leder, Gilah (eds): Mathematics and Gender: Influences on Teachers and Students.
  5. Rogers, Pat and Kaiser, Gabriele (eds): Equity in Mathematics Education.
  6. Rosser, Sue (ed) Teaching the Majority : Breaking the Gender Barrier in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering.
  7. Tobias, Shelia: They're Not Dumb, They're Different. United States Government Document: Women and K-12 Science and Mathematics Education.

Michelle Maraffi's annotated bibliography Girls' Attitudes, Self-Expectations, and Performance in Math is excellent and contains articles regarding the attitudes of girls, their parents, and their teachers towards math.

I wish you good luck. If anything can transcend gender boundaries, the beauty of mathematics should surely be it! The fact that you asked about how to make math more accessible to women shows that you could definitely make a difference through your teaching.

- Math doctors Daniel and Rachel, The Math Forum
 Check out our web site! /dr.math/


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