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Closing the gender gap in maths

The gender gap in mathematics participation and achievement is not hardwired and targeted intervention may close the gap.

While Australian girls are less likely to participate and engage in mathematics, and more likely to achieve at a significantly lower level than boys, this is not evidence of biological or ‘hardwired’ differences between girls and boys, or even indicative of learning differences, according to a new report from ACER.

ACER Research Fellow Dr Sarah Buckley, in the report, Gender and sex differences in student participation, achievement and engagement in mathematics, concludes that research does not support the idea of structural differences in the brain between girls and boys.

Boys and girls, and achievement and participation

Results from the 2012 cycle of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) reveal that 15-year-old Australian girls achieved at a significantly lower level than boys, by a difference of approximately one-third of a school year. Girls are also more likely to opt out of maths and science subjects than boys.

‘The participation of girls in any maths and science subjects in senior school is declining but more worrying is that the participation of girls in advanced maths and science subjects – which are prerequisites for further study and careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields – is also declining,’ Dr Buckley said.

Boys and girls, and attitudes and engagement

‘PISA also examined students’ attitudes towards maths and found that while approximately one-fifth of male students did not think maths was important for future study, approximately one-third of female students believed this statement,’ Dr Buckley said.

‘Girls also report lower confidence in their capability and that they can succeed in maths, and higher levels of maths anxiety than boys.

‘If girls are less engaged and more anxious about maths, we can expect them to be less likely to pursue maths courses or choose career pathways that involve maths.’

The good news, according to the report, is that neuroscience does not suggest that there are hardwired brain differences but rather shows the brain is highly plastic. And according to neuroscience, psychology and education research, that means girls’ – and boys’ – attitudes, engagement, participation and achievement in maths can be changed by what they think and do, how their teachers teach, and by the messages they receive from society.

Closing the gap between boys and girls

Boys and girls may have certain preferences for learning – likely encouraged through socialisation – but according to Dr Buckley, this does not mean they cannot learn in other ways. It is also a generalisation to say that all girls or boys will have a preference for a particular learning style or environment.

‘Rather, the message from neuroscience and psychological research is that given new environmental opportunities there is the potential for change and growth,’ Dr Buckley said.

Approaches designed to target the gender maths gap must be multifaceted, according to Dr Buckley. The Gender and sex differences in student participation, achievement and engagement in mathematics report suggests targeted approaches, including:

  • programs that allow girls who are struggling with maths to practise their maths skills
  • initiatives that challenge negative gender stereotypes
  • efforts to increase student interest, enjoyment or intrinsic value, and
  • efforts to promote the value of mathematics for future educational and career aspirations.

‘The more mathematics is perceived in our society as a subject that is useful, enjoyable and attainable by all, irrespective of gender, the more likely the gender gap will start to close’, Dr Buckley writes. â– 

Further information:

Read the report, Gender and sex differences in student participation, achievement and engagement in mathematics by Dr Sarah Buckley.

Learn more about the Centre for Science of Learning @ ACER.

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