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Girls' nominal participation in mathematics: A preliminary investigation

John Watts
The purpose of this paper is three-fold, to:
  1. briefly analyse literature relating to the investigation of the phenomenon of girls' nominal participation in advanced mathematics conducted in the United States of America, United Kingdom, Europe and Australia;
  2. report current findings from a preliminary investigation into the phenomenon being conducted by the writer, following which five case studies relating to girls and mathematics in Years 10 and 11, will be conducted; and
  3. generate brief implications for the teaching and learning of mathematics in the context of gender equity.

General context

It is notionalised that interrelationships among sex, politics, decision making, and influence form a significant part of Australian cultural thought, and indeed constitute a worldview whereby certain 'fundamental' concepts of reality are shared by persons in any given culture. Few would question that male dominance is the general rule in contemporary Australian society, particularly when associated with such criteria as wealth, prestige, occupation, education and proximity to power, all of which make status for girls and women problematic.

Greater awareness of women's issues is emerging (e.g. Connell 1987; Kenway 1990; Spender 1982). The myth of the woman as the happy housewife heroine (Friedan 1963) is increasingly conflicting with more expansive current realities. For example, the contemporary woman may choose from a number of alternative life-styles ranging from traditional helpmate-wife-mother role (Morgan 1973 ) to a more radical feminist role.

In this cultural environment of women adapting to new forms of responsibilities and freedoms, it should be noted that an 'enemy' for some women may be other women trapped in an inner culture of patriarchy. For example, Dowling's (1981) thesis was that personal, psychological dependency (the deep wish to be taken care of by others) was the chief source holding women down today. She called this the "Cinderella Complex", a network of largely repressed attitudes and fears that keeps women in a kind of half-light retreating from the full use of their minds and creativity. Like Cinderella, some women today may still be waiting for something or someone external to transform their lives.

Specific context

In 1975 the Commonwealth Schools Commission issued Girls, School and Society, a report which officially acknowledged the existence of sexism and its negative influences upon the education of girls in Australia. One aspect of sexism is demonstrated in the mathematics education of girls, who are only nominally represented in higher-level mathematics classes at secondary schools and in mathematics-dependent occupations (Johnston 1990; Willis 1989).

There is evidence that girls are treated differently to boys by education systems and society (e.g. Burton 1986; Clarke 1990; Evans 1988). Sex typing may be found in shops, advertising and books. Textbooks have overly depicted women in passive and supporting roles, such as housewife, nurse or secretary. Girls are covertly discouraged from pursuing mathematics because marriage is still regarded as a universal and terminal occupation which places higher-level mathematics as irrelevant to their perceived future. It seems clear that unless strong and concerted action is taken at all levels of government and society to change attitudes, structures and practices, the overwhelming majority of girls will remain in a service capacity for males (Morgan 1986).

Both the Queensland and Commonwealth Governments have issued policy statements on equality of opportunity, wherein discrimination via sex-role stereotyping (for example, girls' nominal participation and under-achievement in higher-level school mathematics) is incongruent with the goals of education (Kenway 1990, provides a sound introduction to gender and education policy analysis). How to achieve that equality of opportunity has been a moot point, but there have been some insightful suggestions made by thinkers in this area. For example, Crawford (1988) suggested that to achieve equality of opportunity in mathematics for girls, changes must be made in two major areas, namely:

  1. Recognition of the gender differences in interests and learning outside school and the effect of these differences in learning mathematics.

  2. Gender equity, at all levels, must be defined in terms of the conditions of learning as well as opportunity for participation.
Crawford based her suggestions upon an interactionist perspective wherein knowledge is constructed by learners through interaction with both the physical and social environments (a constructivist approach), moving away from the perspective that differences in mathematics achievement are caused by differences in unchangeable intellectual ability. This means that the conditions of participation in classroom activity are defined by the knowledge base and past experience of the learner and the social context of learning, as well as the characteristics of the classroom tasks, clearly implying that attendance of itself by boys and girls in the same mathematics classes does not necessarily ensure equal participation or equal opportunity.

A number of psycho-social-cultural factors have been delineated which may help explain why girls generally do not enjoy higher-level mathematics, why they "drop out" of advanced mathematics in high schools, and why few women choose mathematics dependent occupations. It is of interest that research questions (Willis 1989) have evolved from "Why can't girls do as well as boys in mathematics?" (1960s) through "Why don't girls do as well as boys in mathematics?" (1970s) to most recently "Why won't girls do as well as boys in mathematics?" (1980s and 1990s).

When the "crucial middle grades" (Fennema 1982) are considered for girls and mathematics, a number of important issues emerge. There is differential enrolment by girls and boys in advanced mathematics courses in high schools (e.g. Johnston 1990), apparent lower achievement by females in high-level mathematical tasks, and more negative attitudes on the part of females toward the learning of higher-level mathematics.

Differences maybe explained partially by a number of considerations which have been well covered in the literature (e.g. Fennema 1982; Leder 1988; Taylor & Brooks 1986; Willis 1989). For example, girls' attitudes towards mathematics seems to be less positive than that of boys, even by sixth grade, and influence how hard they study, how much they learn, and their willingness to elect mathematics courses. Second, girls perceive mathematics not to be particularly useful to their future needs, again influencing how hard they work in mathematics. Third, society tends to stereotype mathematics as a male doma in, with boys stereotyping mathematics at much higher levels than girls, while girls stereotype reading as being a feminine activity. The latter correlates with most mathematics teachers at 'higher' levels being male, and most adults who use hard mathematics being male. Finally, differential behaviour may result in "learned helplessness" in achievement situations, wherein girls attribute failure to uncontrollable factors (e.g. lack of ability), and perceive themselves to be helpless, necessitating dependence upon others.

Contextual reflection

Suggested reasons (some of which are contested) from the literature for nominal participation of girls in higher level mathematics include:

Selected findings from a preliminary study

A preliminary study was done to explore the subjective belief systems of girls, as they pertained to their participation in school mathematics. In this study, prior to a deeper investigation being conducted using five case studies, twelve girls were selected from two schools in a provincial city in Queensland. Four girls known to the investigator were selected from each of Grades six, eight and nine on a friendship basis, so that the girls were able to work well together as three small groups. Working together, within established positive small group dynamics that allowed for open and easy communication, was considered to be a priority for the purpose of this exploration, and in the time that was available. A survey instrument, with structured (30 questions) and open (7 questions) sections, was used to gather evidence for the perceptions of girls concerning mathematics.

Questions were weighted evenly, so that a simple scoring and scaling Likert system was used to collect scores for each of the six major aspects being investigated. Findings were treated as evidence for further consideration rather than as final proof.

The six aspects addressed in the structured section of the survey instrument, (each aspect being covered by five questions), were:

On the survey instruments, these aspects were ranked by students as follows:
  1. Encouragement
  2. Usefulness
  3. Confidence
  4. Expectations
  5. Enjoyment
  6. Support
Students from this investigation perceived that they were encouraged to do well at mathematics, and encouragement was the variable most strongly linked to mathematics. Mathematics was thought to be useful, but mainly in the sense that it would help procure a job or place in a university or college. The more negative findings of the questionnaire were that overall enjoyment of the subject was low, and that students received a very narrow spectrum of actual help and support, and that this limited help came mainly from teachers who were perceived by students as being too busy to be able to spend much extra time with students.

General positive agreement was evidenced toward:

General negative agreement was evidenced toward: Tentative differences across Year 6 to Year 9 were as follows: Unstructured responses elicited general agreement. The students found mathematics to be boring for such reasons as extended hours of lessons, not enough interesting maths games and activities, too much listening to maths teaching, hasty or inadequate explanations of maths, content, and some content was repetitious and easy. mathematics was not enjoyed for any perceived intrinsic worth. The major reason given for the usefulness of mathematics after school was job/college access via certification.

The four primary students thought that sometimes formulas and explanations were rushed through. A preference was for teachers who could be approached by students with questions, even dumb questions. Some secondary students perceived their teachers to be only paying attention to students whom the teachers thought were good at mathematics, and who yelled at those who did not understand the maths being taught. However, other secondary students perceived their teachers to be alright and helpful. None of the students perceived herself to be less than average in maths ability. All students were accurate in their understanding of the percentage of jobs requiring maths to Year 12 level, recording answers of 65-80 percent. Answers for "What word, feeling, or picture do you get when maths is mentioned?" ranged from "awful" to "ok", the most visual being a picture of a quiet class with nothing much happening.

There was a tendency for the students to concur that girls were good at maths may be different in some way, but not necessarily be unfeminine. Responses indicated that these students believed that females were as good at mathematics as males, and that males do not do better at maths than girls in their particular classrooms.


Conclusions from the pilot study, which will be investigated through the next stage of research, and possible implications include the following: This study has posited a number of reason-explanations for the phenomenon of normal participation by girls in advanced mathematics, though these same explanations for lack of participation may not be confined to a particular group of girls. At the very least, it seems that the experiences and perceptions of these girls would suggest that Willis' notions of can't, don't and won't are legitimate, and that the question to be researched in depth is currently, Why won't girls do advanced mathematics?


Agassi, J. 1982, 'Mathematics Education as Training for Freedom', For the Learning of Mathematics, 4(1), pp.28-32.

Burton, L. (Ed.) 1986, Girls into Maths Can Go, Sydney, Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Clarke, M. 1990, The Great Divide: Gender in the Primary School, Melbourne, Curriculum Corporation.

Commonwealth Schools Commission, 1975, Girls, School and Society, Canberra, Commonwealth Schools Commission.

Connell, R. 1987, Gender and Power, Sydney, Allen and Unwin.

Crawford, K. 1988, 'Equality of Opportunity and Equality of Conditions in Mathematics Learning for Girls', Unicorn, 14(3),pp.155-160.

Dowling, C. 1981, The Cinderella Complex: Women 's Hidden Fear of Independence, New York, Summit Books.

Evans, T. 1988, A Gender Agenda: A Sociological Study of Teachers, Parents, and Pupils in Their Primary Schools, Sydney, Allen and Unwin.

Fennema, E. 1982, 'Girls and Mathematics: The Crucial Middle Grades', Mathematics for the Middle Grades: NCTM Yearbook. Virginia, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Friedan, B. 1963, The Feminine Mystique, New York, Dell Publishing.

Johnston, S. 1990, Retention Rates: More Than Just Counting Heads, Brisbane, Department of Education, Queensland.

Kenway, J. 1990, Gender and Education Policy: A Call for New Directions, Victoria, Deakin University.

Leder, G. 1988, 'Teacher-Student Interactions: The Mathematics Classroom', Unicorn, 14(3), pp.161-166.

Morgan, M. 1973, The Total Woman, New Jersey, Fleming H. Revell.

Spender, D. 1982, Invisible Women: The Schooling Scandal, London, Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative.

Taylor, L. and Brooks, K. 1986, 'Building Math Confidence by Overcoming Math Anxiety: From Theory to Practice', Adult Literacy and Basic Education, 19(1), insert.

Willis, S. 1989, 'Real Girls Don't Do Maths': Gender and the Construction of Privilege, Geelong, Deakin University Press.

Author details: Dr John Watts is a lecturer in the Education Faculty, University of Central Queensland

Please cite as: Watts, J. (1995). Girls' nominal participation in mathematics: A preliminary investigation. Queensland Researcher, 11(2), 1-8. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qr11/watts.html

[ Contents Vol 11, 1995 ] [ QJER Home ]
Created 19 Aug 2005. Last revision: 19 Aug 2005.
URL: http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qr11/watts.html