Last month, the conference proceedings were released from the 2018 International Conference On Gender Research. The proceedings included a paper written by Madelyn Johnson and Lisa Kasmer, which is titled ‘Gender Disparity in Mathematics Classrooms’ (see page 227 of the proceedings PDF).

The paper studies beliefs, attitudes and the source of these ideas of females in secondary mathematics classrooms in Tanzania. Johnson and Kasmer use “personal interactions, observations, and interviews to begin to understand the harsh discrimination in the community and the classroom that makes it difficult for females to find success in mathematics.”

While their research is conducted in Tanzania, Johnson and Kasmer’s discoveries are highly relevant to those teaching math in the United States. In this blog post, I’d like to share share some of the authors’ findings and then I’ll highlight ideas we can apply in our own math teaching based on the findings.

One finding was that lack of female role models (such as female teachers) in mathematics perpetuates the notion of the inability of females to find success in math. During one of Johnson and Kasmer’s research interviews, a head of the mathematics department at a Tanzanian school remarked that, “Since you have come to our school, our female students are very happy because they do well when they see that [females] can perform mathematics”.  

The importance of female role models extends beyond the gender of the teacher to also include the gender examples highlighted in curriculum resources. For example, Johnson and Kasmer’s review of literature found that “the presentation of material in textbooks often perpetuates a belief that females have less agency relative to mathematics. A content analysis of textbooks used in Tanzanian schools showed that males and females were depicted in sexually stereotypical roles (Asimeng-Boahene, 2006). Males were four times more likely to be the subject of stories or examples, and the females that were depicted were described with sexually stereotypical characteristics (Asimeng-Boahene, 2006). For example, females were seen as caring for children, cleaning the home, or cooking.”

Secondly, the researchers found that “Low expectations for female students in math classes often elicit praise for underachievement, which diminishes motivation to work harder or excel in mathematics. Teachers also intentionally channel questions so that more difficult questions are directed at males and easier questions are directed at females, which supports the belief that females are incapable of answering challenging questions.” The authors observed that this caused female students to feel like they had to work harder in order to succeed and be taken seriously in math classes.

A third finding was that older female students often warn younger students about the challenges of upper level math classes. Johnson and Kasmer highlight that, while this is meant as a helpful gesture “it only serves to discourage female students from attempting these courses, because they already believe that they are incapable of succeeding.” 

The above information offers suggestions on evaluating our own math teaching practices in the United States.  For example…

  1. Consider how often female mathematician role models are made known to your students. In the Couragion career literacy app we strive to show diverse role models – and in the math career category, 91% of the role models are female! Think about how you can integrate mathematicians of all types into your class – perhaps by sharing the story of a different mathematician each week and ensure a good mix of gender and ethnicity in the people who you select.
  2. Review the curriculum materials you use to teach math. Are there gender stereotypes embedded in the materials? If so, how can you alter those examples? Also consider what story problems you share verbally with the class and think about ways to embed gender diversity into those stories.
  3. Pay attention to the questions you ask in class and the praise that you give. Are you inadvertently asking tougher questions of male students? For what type of problems or level of effort do you praise various students? Having more intention about how you dole out questions and praise can help to overcome the propagation of stereotypes or unconscious bias.
  4. Finally, brainstorm how you might use older students to instill math confidence in younger students. Many schools have buddy programs where upper level classes adopt younger classes to help with projects or reading. Perhaps one of the projects can be math related whereby the older students share something they like about math.

What ideas have you incorporated in your classrooms to make sure that all students are successful in math? Share your thoughts with us on Twitter - @couragion.