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Girls selecting mathematics and science: Making choices and having expectations

Jackie Walkington
Faculty of Education
University of Southern Queensland
At the University of Southern Queensland a summer school has been successfully conducted for the past eight years aimed at encouraging girls to keep their options open as they choose their subjects for the final two years of secondary study. They are encouraged to consider the power and importance of Maths and Science and to develop an awareness of the career opportunities for girls in non-traditional areas. A longitudinal study established in 1997 is following groups of girls through the final two years of secondary education to ascertain their perceptions of factors which may assist or hinder successful progress and to investigate how they affect future higher education and career choices. Initial findings reveal that it is the girls' perceptions of their own abilities and their likes and dislikes which determine their choice of senior subjects. At the time of subject selection there appears to be greater emphasis in their decision-making on their perceptions of careers than on their perceptions of the educational experience itself. Further investigation during Year 11 reveals that expectations are often not being met and their perceptions are that other variables are playing a part in the potential for success.

Women have traditionally been under-represented in higher education study in the areas of Science, Mathematics and Engineering. Much literature has been generated in an attempt to explain why this is so, its implications and how this imbalance may be addressed. The issue has been discussed from educational and societal perspectives in a search for answers. While career decisions may be made at any time in life, the majority of decisions are formed in the secondary school. It is the experience at this time that leads to students accepting or rejecting study in Mathematics and Science (Byrne 1994; Smeaton 1996).

In collaboration with the annual Girls in Maths and Science Summer School at the University of Southern Queensland (USQ), a longitudinal study was established in 1997 to research the factors which assist or hinder the progress of girls through upper secondary school in the subject areas of Mathematics and Science. The research question was: 'What are the major barriers and supports to successfully completing a Mathematics/Science course of study in Years 11 and 12 as experienced by female students?' This article is an interim report at the end of the first year of a four-year study.


The under-representation of women in Science, Mathematics and Engineering has been documented widely. The following terms of reference statement from the 1995 discussion paper prepared by the Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (WSET) Advisory Group of the Commonwealth Government, is representative of the wide opinion proclaiming a need for emphasis on attracting women into non-traditional roles:
To advise on improving the level of participation and retention of women in science, engineering and technology education and training at both the vocational and academic level. (WSET Advisory Group, 1995)
The factors that affect subject and (later) career choice are varied and intertwined. They encompass social values, school experience, subject knowledge, career knowledge, aspirations and self-understanding.

The choices that girls make about careers encompass ideas about what they want to be and what they want to have. Factors such as the perceived status of a career and what personal satisfaction they can derive from it are considered important. Smeaton (1996) found that 'female students do not hold [engineering and related careers] in as high regard as other professional options they have' (p. 130). These perceptions are formed from the formal and informal information they receive about careers and the emphasis that is placed upon them by others who are important to them such as parents, siblings and friends. Family culture, upbringing and expectations all play a part in the decision making processes for the selection of upper secondary school subjects and for the selection of further study options (Harding, 1996). A common finding is that girls who choose careers in non-traditional fields have often been positively supported and provided with information by those in their close social environments.

While girls progressing to higher secondary study may be aware of their academic abilities at the stage of subject selection, they do not necessarily know what they want for the future beyond high school. They have an awareness of their ability to achieve university entry, but have little idea in what specific area (Carter & Kirkup, 1990). Teacher support (or lack of support) and a positive (or negative) school experience can be major influences in subject selection. Future decisions are based upon the advice and encouragement (or lack of encouragement) that are proffered by teachers. Smeaton (1996) found that decisions related to tertiary study were highly influenced by the girls' perceptions of their ability in certain subjects based on grades received in study thus far. Career decisions may be made because they are good at the subjects, but really have little early knowledge of what the career entails (McIlwee & Robinson 1992).

Also part of this decision-making process is a belief that a subject has to be seen as interesting if it is to be considered as worth following. A perception of whether the subject is liked or not liked comes about through the interactions of many aspects of the school experience and life outside of school. The image of a particular subject or career path may be influenced by factors such as the portrayal in the media or the experiences of people with whom the student has been in contact (McIlwee & Robinson 1992).

Byrne (1994) contends that the prerequisites that tertiary institutions regard as necessary for entry into Science and Engineering are a filter mechanism that disadvantages girls. Girls tend to make their career decisions later than boys do and as a consequence often do not study the 'right' subjects in secondary school for entry into many tertiary courses. Many women entering engineering often do not make the decision until the 'last minute' when they have discovered how high their marks were in the prerequisite subjects (McIlwee & Robinson 1992). If they have not chosen subjects such as Mathematics and Science at an earlier stage, many options are not available without seeking other avenues of entry such as bridging courses.

The social understanding of male and female roles may affect the ultimate career choice made (Ford & Ford 1995). Moreover, there appear to be different male and female perceptions about the same career (Hardi ng 1996), so that these different perceptions govern why choices made by boys may differ from those made by girls. Studies in Mathematics and Sciences are perceived by many as being male oriented. Byrne (1994) refers to the male paradigm of the construction of Mathematics and Science and claims that 'proportionately more boys prefer a structured, information-transmitting directive teaching style'... which ... 'does not allow for discussion of related contextual and social issues' (p. 32), the latter being a strong preference of girls.

To summarise, taking the 'critical step' (Carter & Kirkup, 1990) to embark upon a particular tertiary study path is an action influenced by social values, school experience, subject and career knowledge, aspirations and self-understanding. It is the premise of this longitudinal study that the decisions made during secondary school may restrict or enhance that critical step.


The study is taking place over a four-year period. Three cohorts of approximately 30 girls are involved in the investigation. Each cohort consists of three groups representing: rural, provincial and urban Queensland; private schools and state schools; and large schools and small schools. Lists of past participants of the USQ Annual Girls in Maths and Science Summer School were used to identify a representative sample of schools. Past participants of the USQ Summer School make up about one-third of the groups interviewed, with the remainder being drawn from participants' schools. All girls are studying some Mathematics and Science in Years 11 and 12.

The study is following these girls as they select their senior school subjects, experience two years of senior school study and make decisions about future study and career. In focus group interviews in Year 11, each cohort has been asked why particular Mathematics and Science subjects were chosen or not, the reasons and some indication of their career aspirations. They have also been asked to discuss their expectations of study in Year 11 and to compare these with what has actually happened so far. Each group of girls is to be interviewed again in Year 12 to discuss changes to, or consolidation of, previous perceptions and experiences. As they complete Year 12 each girl will be asked to complete a questionnaire related to further study pathways to establish what they actually do after Year 12 and how this compares to earlier predictions. The following discussion reports the findings relating to subject selection and how initial expectations matched the experience in Year 11.

The anecdotal comments included are a representation of the large amount of data collected. Data were classified into categories and recorded on an 'unfolding matrix' (Padilla 1994). It is acknowledged that comments do not always fall neatly into these categories, but this approach serves to provide a basis for discussion and for the planning of future interviews.


When the girls were asked what had influenced the selection of the Mathematics and Science subjects, three factors appeared to have major influence on their choice:
  1. their perception of their ability to do the subject;
  2. their likes and dislikes for the general topic of study; and
  3. the information they had on future career choices.
It was clear that being secure in the knowledge that they could do well in the subjects had a major influence. This security was based on performance in the lower grades of high school. Comments such as the following were common.
I did well in Chemistry in junior science.
I did Maths B and Maths C because I've always been best at Maths.[1]
The availability of subjects had major influence on subject selection. With subjects arranged on 'line', girls often had to make choices they would rather not make. 'Lines' here refer to the availability of subjects in relation to others in a particular school. Usually, students need to select a subject from each line. While a particular subject may appear on more than one line (for example Mathematics A), subjects studied by a smaller number of students may only appear once (for example Physics and Ancient History) forcing a choice to be made.
I chose Mathematics C because there was nothing else that I liked on the line.
Chemistry was a hard choice because there were other things on that line I wanted to do.
Our lines were such that we could not choose all science subjects. It was a barrier. Physics and Biology were only offered once and on the same line.
I was unhappy because I was forced by line allocation to do certain combinations of subjects.
Our school did try hard to accommodate us. They tried to arrange things for us if the line allocations didn't suit us.
While this is not a difficulty faced only by girls, there are implications for the decision-makers in schools. A number of girls wanted to do subjects from both the Science and Humanities categories and were unable to do so. A couple of schools did not offer Mathematics C even though students would have liked to do it.

The liking or disliking of Science and Mathematics work was a strong contributing factor to subject selection. The nature of the subject itself and the perceptions of a subject's relationship to the girls' interests provided interesting responses.

I really like biology. It's not a prerequisite for anything, but I like nature and stuff.
I'd like to do science - research - I'd like to save the world - to contribute something.
It is difficult to separate the influence of a number of factors. Liking a subject, doing well in a subject and seeing it as useful in a career are intertwined and interrelated. Approximately 60 percent of the girls had no clear career paths in view. Many had a general direction while others were very much undecided. However, it was a common perception that university or other tertiary study was a goal at this stage.

Some participants provided background information about the support and role-modelling of parents, siblings and teachers, but few saw this as a major influence. A number actually denied that any one really influenced them and in a few cases, girls took the path of their own choice in opposition to advice or role-modelling from family or peers.

I wouldn't like to be an engineer because I know of dad's work. It isn't very interesting.
Peer influence was not considered a significant factor in choosing subjects. Any reference made to friends and their subject selection tended to demonstrate this.
My friend said Chemistry was terrible, but I did it anyway because I knew her interests were different from mine.
A number of the participants made reference to people they knew (often family) who carried out a job which looked interesting. Reference was also made to the image of some careers in the media. For example, one girl stated that she was considering medicine because of what she had seen on television. Another said that forensic science was attractive because of the image she developed about the job from books and television.

Interestingly, no comments were made about gender-related aspects of subject choice. It was expected, from the literature, that comments would have been forthcoming about the 'maleness' of certain subjects or career choices, or perhaps about studying in a 'male dominated' environment. These did not occur.

For most of the participants there was an acceptance before Year 11 that they would be studying Mathematics of some kind in the senior years. While a few vacillated between single mathematics (Mathematics B) and double mathematics (Mathematics B and C) most decisions were made earlier in year 10.

The decision to study Science subjects was not so clear-cut. While a minority of the girls had made plans early, many had difficulty making final decisions. Around one-third of the participants stated that they had to make a choice between Chemistry and Biology as they wanted also to include non-Science subjects and their number of subjects was limited. Of the girls choosing Physics, about half had decided early in year 10; the others wanted to confirm their Mathematics proficiency first.


The learning experience during year 11 in some cases supported the girls' expectations, but in many cases it did not. The fulfilment of expectations appears to have in part contributed to how the girls perceive their continued liking for the subjects. The learning experiences were integrally linked to their perceived success or lack of success. Some factors were perceived almost unanimously as influencing success and these are discussed briefly below.

These are 'teachers', 'classroom activity', 'assessment', 'class composition' and 'subject content'.


While many girls knew who would be their teachers in Year 11, many did not, especially in larger schools. However, they did expect that the teacher of each class would be very interested in the subject, would treat the students as senior students within the school and would be interested in them as individuals. All girls were of the opinion that the teachers were the greatest influence on their enjoyment of classes and their subsequent perceptions of success.
If the teacher makes it enjoyable, it maintains your interest.
She's really friendly. She makes the subject bearable.
Enthusiasm and a willingness to allow open communication is motivating.
The teacher is so enthusiastic, I feel obliged to work hard.
The following examples demonstrate situations that were perceived as being barriers to success.
Our Mathematics teacher really enjoys his Mathematics, but he drifts off to his own area of interest constantly and we get bored.
If he thinks you are good at Mathematics, then he focuses on you and ignores the rest.
We are treated as if we are all the same, but some need more time and others get bored.
The girls interviewed placed a great deal of emphasis on the importance of the teachers in their on-going motivation and feelings of success. They felt that a sound teacher/student relationship enhanced their liking for a subject and the girls often stated that their opinions of how much they liked a subject changed according to the way they related to the particular teachers. Comments comparing teachers in different subjects were common. Students acknowledged that teaching different sized classes required different approaches, but in general felt that Mathematics teachers were not as interactive as teachers in other subjects.

Classroom Activity

While many girls experienced the teaching/learning environment much as they had expected, they outlined particular aspects that they felt were supportive or unsupportive. The following represents aspects commented upon sufficiently to be mentioned. The girls were very positive about classes in which they could feel involved. They expected to have practical sessions in their science classes and were keen to apply theory to practical situations in both Mathematics and Science.
Doing a prac really helps me to understand - that's the way I learn.
Variety of activity in class helps me - keeps me on track.
Working in groups with friends around you is great - we help each other by using each other's strengths.
In some subjects I prefer the teacher to talk to us (for example Mathematics C), but in Science I like to be more interactive.
Conversely, some classroom activity was seen to be a hindrance to succeeding at the subject.
Just taking notes is boring - you don't take it in because you haven't the time.
You really need to study more and be more organised in Year 11. But while they told us about it, they didn't really tell us how.
Some teachers go at one speed in class. If you fall behind you are forever behind and lose interest.
A factor that ties together the categories of teachers and classroom activities is concerned with students who appeared to lack self-discipline. Many comments were made about some students needing constant attention in order to maintain some order in the classroom. It was felt that whole classes often lacked the opportunity to work independently because of the misbehaviour of a few. It was seen to be equally disconcerting when distracting misbehaviour was ignored. Situations such as these were seen as reducing the motivation for the subject.


A strong statement from all the girls interviewed was the failure to reach the results they expected in the first term of Year 11. While some girls realised that this was happening to all students and later became a motivating factor to do well, others found it demotivating, an experience that had ramifications for the liking of subjects and teachers. A few comments suggested that the widespread occurrence of this phenomenon was a way of 'weeding out' students or proving the point that in Year 11 it was expected that the students must work harder.

There were individual preferences for the style of assessment. The majority stated that tests and examinations were the main style, with reports and assignments more related to practical work.

We have orals in Physics and I didn't expect that. I like them because I'm good at them.
Assignments can be good because you have time to go over and change things without having to get it right first time.
In an exam you don't have to worry so much over details. You've only got an hour so you put it down quickly.
My first report card was a big shock. We all thought we would do well, but when I got B's after getting A's in junior school I was very disappointed.
My past experiences in Chemistry were good, but it didn't transfer to Year 11. I didn't know how to present the answers properly. We hadn't been shown.
In exams you don't get a chance to think. It is very stressful. Are they checking our understanding or our speed?
Teachers don't like team assessment because they find it hard to mark individuals.
Competition in assessment was also discussed. For some girls competition was seen as a great motivator; for others it was very stressful. The need to obtain high marks and to do better than other students was perceived by the girls as a high priority. They felt that emphasis on competitiveness was encouraged because of the competitive nature of tertiary entrance. Positive comments included the following:
In perspective, competition can be a positive factor. You often only admit to yourself that a particular person is competing and you want to beat them.
In a class with mostly boys (Physics) there is a motivation to do better than the boys because they are watching your results hoping to beat you.
Negative comments included the following:
Teachers don't like us to work as teams because we have to be marked as individuals. Competition overcomes the learning that we could get out of a team effort.
When my friends are getting A's in History and I'm getting B's in Chemistry, it's hard to remember that you can't compare them like that.
Those who found strong competition stressful also stated that their liking for some content material had decreased as a consequence. Some subjects ceased to be as enjoyable as they had been expected to be.

Class Composition

The general expectation was that classes in subjects such as Mathematics C and Physics would be smaller that other subjects. This was usually the case, however one example given was a Physics class of almost 30 students. Comments were supportive of smaller classes.
Small classes can be great for individual attention.
Mathematics C and Physics are smaller classes and therefore more laid back - leads to more freedom and more independence.
Expectations of the gender mix in the classes was varied. Knowledge of the particular school meant expectations were realised. For example, as expected, boys in co-educatio nal schools often dominated Physics. The girls did not find this a problem, although two girls stated that they had eventually decided not to take on a particular subject for fear of being the only girl in the class.

The manner in which teachers were allocated to classes caused concern in a few cases and the girls involved felt they constituted barriers to their success. In one school, the Chemistry class had a different teacher each term. Another school attempted to cater for small Year 11 and 12 Chemistry classes by having a composite class. However, it does not seem to have operated as a composite.

Year 11's sit at the front on two days of the week and the Year 12's on the other two. When it's not your turn to be up front, you goof off. I'm sure we're not getting the work done.

Subject Content

The expectations of the subject content came mostly from the girls' experience in Year 10. However, some had the advantage of having siblings or friends who had studied particular subjects and therefore knew what to expect. Those who based their expectations on prior experience demonstrated varied perceptions of the Year 11 experience.
Chemistry was not as exciting as I thought.
I expected to carry on like in Year 10 - things were pretty much spelled out there. In Year 11 it was very different from what I expected - you really have to find out for yourself.
I kind of knew that Physics would be like it is and that you would have to concentrate to understand the work.
I want to know why things do things and Physics helps me understand. I like it. It's what I thought it would be.


In this study, although it is difficult to lay claim to any particularly definitive statements about subject choice, noticeable trends emerge as to which factors are identified as being important. While in the main they confirm previous studies, there are some differences evident.

While not denying that socially constructed ideas on gender exist, this selection of girls did not demonstrate an emphasis on gender roles. The major factors in choice of subject were their perception of their ability to do the subjects, their likes and dislikes for the general topic of study and the information they had on future career choices.

The collective comments made by the girls about the image of certain professions and of the subjects required for entry into appropriate tertiary study demonstrate that their perceptions are often limited and very reliant on personal success in the past. This has strong implications for those in secondary schools and in higher education who seek to help students with the selection of subjects and possible career paths. Comments made during interviews led to a general understanding that career support and advice in most schools is ad hoc rather than organised to ensure students receive a sound basis for decision-making.

The broad range of experiences in Year 11 both supported and contradicted expectations depending on the particular situations. This is expected as the girls represented schools that demonstrated a variety of school philosophies, geographical distribution, class sizes and subject offerings. The findings indicate that there are many inter-related factors that determine the potential success or failure of girls in Mathematics and Science. They also indicate that there are both pedagogical and philosophical issues that need to be addressed in individual schools to enhance the potential success of their students. It is evident that the teachers themselves in their planning and implementation of teaching strategies, are perceived as the most crucial influence on the girls' perceptions of success in Mathematics and Science in upper secondary school.

The USQ Girls in Maths and Science Summer School seeks to encourage girls to keep their options open by studying both Science and Mathematics in Years 11 and 12. The developers of the Summer School can be guided by these interim findings. In particular the school can play an informative and supportive role by developing interest in Mathematics and Science and the careers to which they lead.


Byrne, E. (1994). Critical filters: Hidden helix, policies for advancing women in science and technology. A discussion paper prepared for the Women in Science, Engineering and Technology Working Party.

Carter, R. & Kirkup, G. (1990). Women in engineering: A good place to be? London: Macmillan Education.

Ford, R. & Ford, A. (1995). Men and women in engineering: Incorporating both worlds. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Conference and Convention of the Australasian Association for Engineering Education, Melbourne (pp. 240-244).

Harding, J. (1996). Science is a masculine straight-jacket. In L. H. Parker et al (Eds.), Gender, science and mathematics: Shortening the shadow. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic.

McIlwee, J. S. & Robinson, J. G. (1992). Women in engineering: Gender, power and workplace culture. New York: State University of New York Press.

Padilla, R. V. (1994). The unfolding matrix: Techniques for qualitative data acquisition and analysis. Studies in Qualitative Methodology, 4, 273-285

Smeaton, B. (1996). Engineering: The last male frontier. An honours thesis submitted to the Department of Anthropology and Sociology, University of Queensland.

WSET Advisory Group (The Women in Science, Engineering and Technology Advisory Group). (1995). Women in Science, Engineering and Technology: A discussion paper. Canberra: AGPS.


  1. In the Queensland Senior curriculum, Mathematics A is a general mathematics subject while Mathematics B and C are more demanding academically. Mathematics C requires Mathematics B as a companion.

Author details: Jackie Walkington (MEd, BEd, DipT) is a lecturer in the Faculty of Education at USQ where she lectures in curriculum theory and design and pedagogics. She is currently enrolled in a PhD investigating curriculum development processes in higher education especially as it pertains to engineering education. She is the academic coordinator of the annual USQ Girls in Mathematics and Science Summer School and is the chief investigator in the study discussed in this paper. Her passion for effective and inclusive teaching practice guides her university teaching, research and scholarship activities.

Please cite as: Walkington, J. (1998). Girls selecting mathematics and science: Making choices and having expectations. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 14(1), 75-88. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer14/walkington.html

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