girls and boys and equity in mathematics teachers beliefs n.
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A basic belief underlying this presentation is that females’ social learning and beliefs about themselves with regard to mathematicsare different from those of males. The entire field of mathematics might be enriched if more young females were given the opportunity to grow into mathematical scholars and give their unique contribution.

Soro EWM 2009 Turku

university of turku department of mathematics

University of TurkuDepartment of Mathematics

retrieved from


Females have not elected to participate in advanced mathematics courses or in mathematics-related careers at the same level as males have. Girls tend to underestimate their math ability in school, even though their actual performance is as good as or better than that of the boys.Mathematics has been and continues to be a critical filter to careers and occupations, which are interesting, challenging, have high status, and are usually well-paid.

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Elizabeth Fennema: “Mathematics is a unique product of human culture. Permitting females to understand this culture is important both for their own appreciation of the beauty of mathematics and the transmission of this culture to future generations.” Fennema, E. 1995. Mathematics, Gender and Research. In B. Grevholm & G. Hanna (eds.) Gender and Mathematics Education. Lund: Lund University Press, 21-38.

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In this presentation the word equity is used instead of equality.

In some aspects "equality" is not synonymous with "equity“. Thus, rather than striving for equality in the meaning of ‘sameness’ amongst girls and boys,teachers should promote equity which reflects the needs and strengths of both groups.

Merriam-Webster On-Line Dictionary:


justice according to natural law or right;

specifically: freedom from bias or favouritism


equal (1): of the same measure, quantity, amount, or number as another

2): identical in mathematical value or logical denotation

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what is gender equity equality council of europe defines
What is gender equity (equality)?Council of Europe defines:
  • Gender equality means an equal visibility, empowerment and participation of both sexes in all spheres of public and private life.
  • Gender equality is the opposite of gender inequality, not of gender difference.

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gender equity in mathematics education
Gender equity in mathematics education

Judgements on educational equity have been based on three different definitions of equality:

  • equal opportunity
  • equal treatment
  • equal outcome.

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1 equal opportunity
(1) equal opportunity

Many teachers believe that equity has been reached since there are no formal borders and the co-educational school system provides equal opportunity to elect mathematics.

However there are far more boys than girls in advanced math classrooms.

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2 equal treatment
This second definition is also problematic. Teachers may believe that they treat boys and girls the same way. Classroom observations show that this does not prevail.

Males interact more frequently with their teachers. Teachers have different achievement expectations and they vary their explanations for success and failures depending on the sex of the student.

Even, if the teacher strives to equal treatment of girls and boys, girls and boys may perceive it differently.

(2) equal treatment

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3 equity as equal outcome
If equity in mathematics is defined as equal educational outcome, there should not be gender differences in achievement or participation or in how males and females feel about themselves and mathematics.

This third definition is consistent with the definition of equality Council of Europe has given i. e. to require equal visibility, empowerment and participation of both sexes.

Equity in this sense has not been reached.

(3) equity as equal outcome

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the gender problem in mathematics

There are widely differing perceptions of what constitutes the so-called gender and mathematics problem. The starting point and the assumptions behind it are questionable.

Ernest has listed five views of gender and maths problem. Each of the views is connected to a different educational ideology and to a different socially located interest group.

Ernest, P. 1998. Changing Views of ’The Gender Problem’ in Mathematics. In V. Walkerdine, Counting girls out: Girls and Mathematics (new edition) pp. 1-14. London: Virago

The ‘Gender Problem’ in Mathematics


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five views of gender and maths problem
Five views of gender and maths problem
  • Fixed biological differences
  • Society needs workforce
  • The ablest women to be encouraged
  • Girls/women lack confidence
  • Distorted social construction of gender roles

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1 fixed biological differences
Fixed biological differences make males better at maths.

Attempts at equal opportunities are undesirable political interventions in the natural state of affairs.

1. Fixed biological differences

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2. Society needs workforceThe situation of female under-participation should be improved for benefit of society. Well-educated workforce of both men and women is needed, even if, as many in this group believe, females are inferior at mathematics.

3. The ablest women to be encouraged

Maths ability is inherited and primarily male. In the interest of mathematics this group want also the ablest women to be encouraged to progress as far as their ’nature’ will allow them.

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4 girls women lack confidence
4. Girls/women lack confidence
  • The gender and mathematics problem is due to the lack of confidence and poor mathematical attitudes of girls and women, i. e.
  • it is an individual problem.
  • The solution is to encourage and support girls and women more in mathematics.

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5 distorted social construction of gender roles
5. Distorted social construction of gender roles

Gender inequity is due to underlying sexism and stereotyping in society in maths. Gendered identities, gender roles, are socially constructed and mathematics is stereotyped as male and femininity as non mathematical.

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If mathematics is understood to be stereotypically male and unfeminine, it means that girls must choose to be feminine or to choose to be successful at mathematics.

For some women it is possible to opt for both, especially for those, who have been encouraged to develop their mathematical talents by significant male others (like their fathers) during the formative adolescent years, but for many others it is a strong barrier and an inhibiting force.

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a problem of the views of the utility of mathematics
A problem of the views of the utility of mathematics?

If we want more women to choose math-based careers it's not enough to try to raise girls' confidence levels. Their career choices are often based on human values. Girls, also boys, should be demonstrated how mathematically based sciences can improve the world.

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girls and boys and equity in mathematics teachers beliefs1

Some results of my study

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The focus of my doctoral dissertation was to examine

(1) teachers’ beliefs about differences of boys and girls as learners of mathematics, and

(2) teachers’ beliefs about gender equity in mathematics education and how it could be reached.

Finnish secondary school (13-15 year olds) teachers of mathematics, 110 female and 94 male, answered to a questionnaire. One year later ten of the respondents were interviewed.

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girls boys

Boys’ and girls’ essential differences as math learners


145 characterizations in total 105 characterizations in total

conscientious 35 idle 17diligent, hard-working 34 reasoning, intellectual 13rote-learner 12 careless 11

lack of selfconfidence 12 insight, creative 9routin-doer 10 selfconfident 8rule-follower, copies 8 venturous 7 exercising 5 problemsolver 5persistent 4 not persistent 5

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what are girls and boys essential differences as math learners
“What are girls’ and boys’ essential differences as math learners?”
  • The most prominent difference concerned working. Girls are painstaking and diligent and boys are idle.
  • Secondly cognitive skills were emphazised, girls tend to routines and boys use their power of reason.
  • The third difference was found in attitudes, boys are venturous but girls lack self-confidence.

14 % of the teachers did not believe in essential differences.

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describe in a few words a girl a boy who is achieving high in mathematics
”Describe in a few words a girl / a boy who is achieving high in mathematics”
  • 30 % of the teachers described a high achieving girl and a high achieving boy with same or nearly same words.
  • But the great majority of teachers mentioned different factors for girls’ and boys’ high achievement. The factors for boys were more varied and many-sided than those of girls.

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a high achieving girl a high achieving boy descriptions tot 320 descriptions tot 250
A HIGH ACHIEVING GIRLA HIGH ACHIEVING BOYdescriptions (tot. 320) descriptions (tot. 250)

diligent 82 diligent 23

conscientious 66 conscientious 20

(somewhat) talented15 (naturally) talented 20

quiet 11 perceiving 15

careful 11 intellectual 19

bright 11 bright 14

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Teachers’ beliefs about gender equityQuestion 1. ”What is the best way to treat boys and girls equitably?”(hints:no attention to gender, equal treatment, girls’ and boys’ needs, favour the weaker) Question 2. ”Is it necessary to bring up gender equity in math class and how do you do it?”

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teachers were categorized under three labels according to their answer on addressing gender equity
Teachers were categorized under three labels according to their answer on addressing gender equity
  • (1) students have no gender (41 %)
  • (2) equal treatment (38 %)
  • (3) girls’ and boys’ needs (21 %)
  • (4) favour the weaker (0 %)

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students have no gender

Students have no gender

Approximately 41 % of the teachers actively denied the existence of gender equity issues or tried to behave as if they were ’gender blind’. They gave responses such as:

”I don’t bother about gender, I just teach.”

”I treat a student as a person not as a boy or a girl.”

”I try to overlook gender.”

”Mathematics and teaching mathematics is gender free.”

equal treatment

Equal treatment

38 % of the teachers defined equity as equal treatment. This category differs from the former one, of negative awareness, in that the students of these teachers were girls and boys. These teachers did not actively reject the possibility of inequity.

The teachers did not usually define what they meant with equal treatment. They addressed equity by paying attention to all students and they avoided emphasizing differences. ”

”I require the same performance from girls and boys. Nowadays also girls dare, there is not so big difference. ”

girls and boys needs

Girls’ and boys’ needs

21 % of the responses were classified as reflecting teachers’ aims to care about gender or individual differences. Teachers’ starting point was that both genders have special needs or that there are gender differences in cognitive abilities, attitudes or learning styles.

“I vary my teaching methods and exercises”

“I take into account the different learning abilities of them both.”

favour the weaker
Favour the weaker
  • The teachers of this study did not accept this principle and no one chose the alternative of ”favouring the weaker one” in the questionnaire. Also in the interviews this idea of compensation was rejected.
  • The Finnish law on gender equity says that it is possible to deviate from equal treatment especially in the favour of females, if it strives to realize the aims of the law for equality. This compensation is not regarded as discrimination. (In Finland we have the quota principle in political decision making, every committee must have at least 40 % of either sex.)

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is it necessary to bring up gender equity in math class and how do you do it
”Is it necessary to bring up gender equity in math class and how do you do it?”
  • Only one third of the teachers regarded the equity issue necessary to be brought up. The great majority of the teachers regarded gender equity self-evident.
  • ”Gender equity is self-evident, it’s no need to make any fuss about it.”
  • ”Mathematics and gender are in no contact whatsoever.”

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  • Even though many of the teachers did not express very stereotyped beliefs, a great majority held different beliefs about girls and boys and those differences favoured boys. The most emergent was the belief in girls employing inferior cognitive skills.
  • Gender equity was not considered a problem, but equity between those who were motivated to learn and those who were not, and heterogeneous groups and disturbance.
  • Some of the teachers were concerned about boys, who were underachieving or might fall aside, but girls were supposed to manage thanks to their consciousness.

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Boys attained most of teacher attention. But this situation was not seen to violate equity.
  • Gender equity was considered self-evident and mathematics gender-free. Most teachers did not pay any attention to the issue, they believed that they treated a student as an individual and not as a girl or a boy.
  • No differences were found between the beliefs of female and male teachers.

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Valerie Walkerdine published 1989 ‘Counting Girls Out’, a book that changed perceptions about the gender problem. The mainstream analyses of the problem had located one or other ‘lack’ in girls and women as the root of the problem.

In the new edition (1998) Walkerdine writes in the afterword:

“Considerable concern is now being expressed about the relatively poor school performance of boys related to girls....Girls’ attainment in school is not celebrated as an index of cleverness, brains or intellectuality.

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Rather those very factors that [year 1976] were considered a problem in relation to Mathematics, namely rule-following, rote-learning, neatness, good behaviour and so forth, are presented as the keys to female success, downgrading that success, while suggesting that classrooms are too feminine and that masculinity is downgraded and discouraged.The ideal child it seems is still a boy, a boy indeed with potential, whose success is being thwarted by women and girls, indeed by the very notion of female success.” (Walkerdine 1998, p. 168).

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lucina hagman wrote in 1897
Lucina Hagman wrote in 1897:
  • ”A girl’s diffidence and lack of self-confidence makes her to distrust the competence of her knowledge in solving problems. It is astonishing that this conscientious and diligent girl is often unwilling to use her intellect. The teacher must urge and force her to think independently and if he does this, he will find the girl more capable than her outward appearance might suggest.
  • Such as a woman is on her present stage of evolution, she seldom possesses such confidence in her talent needed for scientific research.”

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”I barely need to mention that these characteristics are a result from the prevailing perceptions and fostering traditions during centuries.
  • It often happens in class, when you ask for reasoning and conclusions, that the boys raise their hands up sooner and more densely than girls, but when asked, you get nonsense for an answer from the former. As girls lack self-confidence, boys have got it too much. “

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