Stop telling girls untruths about Maths

Many international brows are beaten on a regular basis about why girls do not seem to choose to study Mathematics with the same enthusiasm or to the same level as boys, and the most recent manifestation of this was on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald. A recent Australian study has shown that the number of girls eligible for an ATAR (the ranking, derived from the Higher School Certificate, which permits entry to Australian universities) who have not studied Maths as part of their final two year course at school has risen from 7.5% in 2001 to 21.5% in 2011. In other words, over a fifth of girls in Australia are not studying Maths to university entrance level. Similar stories abound across the globe.

There is no doubt that the study of Maths is important. Maths teaches us about relationships between space and time. It reveals patterns and helps us to understand designs and configurations. It helps us to appreciate the world around us. It is a beautiful subject.

Moreover, Maths opens the door to careers which are important and growing now, and will be even more significant in the future; as we rely ever more heavily on technology, and as we seek solutions to ever more complex problems around population growth, disease, food security and climate change, Maths and Science-related jobs are going to be where the action is. Although we will always need great liberal thinkers, historians and linguists, among many, many other disciplines, for a well-balanced and well-oiled society, there is no doubt that Maths will underpin many of our practical needs for the next few decades. A recent report by the Royal Academy of Engineering highlighted the steep increase in need for engineers over the next decade; the fact that on current reckonings, only a fraction of this percentage will be trained is therefore really concerning, and the additional fact that statistics are showing that girls – half of the population – seem reluctant to take to Maths is even more deeply concerning as a result.

What can we do about this? How do we ensure that girls choose to take Maths? Of course, in many countries in the world girls are still prevented – by poverty, cultural expectations or religious fundamentalism – from having an education at all, so a discussion about how to encourage girls to take up Maths may in this context seem a luxury, but the question in a wider world context is still undeniably an important one.

The answer is actually very, very simple: we have to stop telling girls that beauty is more important than brawn or brains.

We don’t as a culture think that we do this, of course. But tune in to any group of adoring adults around a little baby girl, and you will hear exclamations of praise for her beauty that you will not hear in a group clustering around a little baby boy. Words like ‘pretty’, ‘sweet’ and ‘cute’ associate themselves with girls ahead of boys and no matter how linguistically aware you are, or how committed to gender equality, you will – if you are honest – recognise this association. This focus on girls’ appearance, started young, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and translates into gender specific toys through childhood, rackloads of pink and frilly clothes in department stores, and teenage magazines where girls are taught how to preen and prettify themselves, at the expense of their self-esteem and their focus on doing and thinking rather than just appearing.

There are perfectly understandable reasons for this – until quite recently in our history, being pretty most definitely mattered to girls and to their life chances. Praising beauty was the right thing to do for girl babies; teaching them how to be successful wives or courtesans was important. Generations – hundreds and thousands of generations – of girls have grown up with these messages. Now, of course, we believe that girls should have the same access as boys to happiness and status; we believe fervently in equal opportunities, and in moving on from the past to a better, more harmonious future. Where we fall down is that the old messages are so embedded that they have become assumptions, unchallenged and therefore harder to shift without critical awareness and thought. Hidden prejudice is always so much harder to dismantle.

It is of course possible to change cultural perceptions of girls and women – and indeed, when you enter forward-thinking girls’ schools, who are explicit in countering this cultural perception of girls, you will find the hard statistics that show how many more girls take Maths to a higher level than the national or international average would indicate. Equality is the key; as demonstrated in a 2011 University of Wisconsin study of 86 countries, quoted in the UK’s Daily Telegraph last year, girls do better in Maths when raised in countries where females have better equality. (In fact, gender equality also boosts boys’ performance in Maths – a win-win situation for all.)

Real equality – not just the legislative frameworks, but the changing of hearts and minds – takes work. The first step is a real and continued effort to expose hidden assumptions and gently but firmly move our power-brokers, the media and the average person in the street through to a position where we can all remove these pressures on girls so that they can release their inner mathematician. If we want these engineers of the future, it is up to us all to make it happen.


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