“It’s just that math is hard.” Lea is 11 years old, has a good school record, and the reason why she hasn’t liked the subject for some time now seems obvious to her. In the dining room of her house in Godella (Valencia), her mother, Sonsoles, who is a high school counselor, comments: “She has had afternoons of getting tense with mathematics because she thinks she doesn’t know. With other subjects she does not pass. Before even starting she gets blocked and, in order not to fail, she prefers not to try ”.
Lea’s relationship with mathematics is a personal matter. But the statistics suggest that girls, on average, tend to drift away from math more than boys. And some studies suggest that the subject causes them more discomfort than their peers, although their results do not differ. The new design of the mathematics subject that the Ministry of Education is preparing contemplates this rejection and proposes some measures to alleviate it.
Researchers from the University of Zaragoza published last year in the journal IEEE Transactions on Education a study in which they analyzed, with data collected before the pandemic, the opinion of 2,137 Aragonese students from first to sixth grade on their subjects. The main conclusion was that 75% of the boys and 55% of the girls considered themselves good at mathematics, and that the divergence widened as the students grew older, says Natalia Ayuso, one of the authors of the article and a professor in the Department of Computer Science and Systems Engineering.
“From the age of eight, girls prefer language and boys mathematics. Some differences that are not seen in natural and social sciences. The girls also show much greater anxiety than they do when facing math exams,” continues Ayuso, who is a member of the Association of Women Researchers and Technologists.
The different perception of Aragonese girls and boys about their ability with mathematics does not correspond to what their grades show. The results of the mathematics tests carried out by the Government of Aragon show similar results between both sexes. Ayuso adds that the teachers (212 teachers were asked in the study) did not intuit, in general, that there was a gap between the vision of boys and girls on mathematics. Nor did the tutor that Lea had last year think that the girl had a problem with the subject, and when her mother asked her if she should review it in the summer, she said no.
need to be bright
Marta Macho, professor of Mathematics at the University of the Basque Country and scientific popularizer, believes that girls’ “lack of confidence” in mathematics is related to the belief that it is a subject “that requires special brilliance.” And she mentions that other studies on self-perception, such as the one published in 2017 in the journal Science, have pointed out that from the age of six girls tend to think that they are hard-working, but less brilliant than their peers, an opinion influenced by gender stereotypes. “The environment around them causes this and reinforces it. It’s not that they are told: ‘You’re not worth it’, although some think so, but they end up being made to think that they are not as valid and brilliant as their peers”, says Macho.
The professor of Mathematics at the University of Seville, Clara Grima, mentions the same article by Science and she adds that, since she always loved them, she did not believe in the idea that girls, in general, liked the subject less than boys until she verified it when she began to give talks in schools. In a possible indication of that insecurity, another study published in August in the same journal found that women leave more questions blank on multiple choice exams than men when negative answers penalize, especially in mathematics.
Both experts think that the girls’ self-perception of their performance conditions the path they choose when they leave school. Women are more than half (54%) of the Baccalaureate students, but they are a minority (47%) in the scientific field. Their presence in the technological branch of Vocational Training tends to be insignificant: they represent, for example, 6% in Automation and industrial robotics. And the fact that they are the majority among university students (55%) does not prevent their weight from falling to 40% in the field of Physical, Chemical, Geological, Mathematics and Statistics sciences and to 25% in engineering.
Macho, editor of the institutional blog of the University of the Basque Country Science and Women, warns of the professional consequences of this. “That women think that they are not good at mathematics keeps them from job opportunities that are not the future, but the present. It means that there will continue to be a salary gap, that they will not carry out an activity that can be highly creative and they will not decide how the technology that is coming out is used. In addition, he adds she, of the loss of talent in said plots that it supposes for society.
The changes that come in the subject
The new curriculum (the objectives and evaluation criteria) of the subject of mathematics that the Ministry of Education is preparing underlines the importance of “eradicating preconceived ideas with gender or the myth of indispensable innate talent.” She urges teachers to help students “identify and manage their emotions, accepting mistakes as part of the learning process”, and to encourage motivation for the subject “from a gender perspective”, explaining, for example, in class “the contributions from women to mathematics throughout history”. An approach that this summer was received with criticism and ridicule by PP, Vox and Ciudadanos.
Luis Miguel Iglesias is a high school teacher in Huelva, he has participated in the development of the primary and secondary mathematics curriculum and defends the approach: “If we treat the emotional aspects, we promote a climate of collaboration in the classroom, we form heterogeneous groups, and we use an inclusive pedagogy, I believe we can move forward”.
Luis Sanz has dedicated himself to studying the gender gap in the research career from the Institute of Public Policies and Goods of the CSIC. And without denying that the vision that the students have of mathematics is influenced by “psychological or role-related” factors, he is in favor of putting “other complementary explanations” on the table. “One that is often overlooked is the question of preferences. For example, there are people who prefer to provide social services and others who prefer to earn more money. And social and structural factors contribute to those preferences, as well as possible biological elements.” The researcher adds that these preferences are probably formed during the school years.
In the 1990s, when the Mathematics degree was fundamentally associated with the job opportunity of teaching in institutes, there was parity and even a majority of women among the students. But, Sanz points out, when years later graduates in Mathematics began to be sued by technology companies, which offered higher salaries and more competitive environments, the balance was broken and a process of masculinization began.
“I think we have to make an effort to continue investigating,” says Javier Aramayona, a researcher at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (ICMAT) and member of its equality committee, “because surely there is not one issue of women and mathematics, but rather many topics that are included under the same thing, but that respond to problems that may be different”.
Showing the female students role models for women with successful professional careers in the scientific field is essential, says Aramayona, who adds: “Where are the role models for the boys of men who reach correct professional levels and are also functional adults, who take care of your kids and make dinner? I mean, maybe we shouldn’t just pitch the kids as benchmarks for professional success.”
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