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Exam results tell us girls can do maths, so why don’t they believe it and what can we do?

Many moons ago, I was unceremoniously shooed away from the Economics information table at A-level choices evening as my maths wouldn’t be up to the job. “They’re probably right,” I thought, as I turned to the open arms of the modern languages team… Years later, I find myself tempted to forward evidence that Oxford University saw fit to let me sit a course in economics as part of my Masters to those naysayers as proof of my capabilities. But, if my top GCSE maths grade didn’t instil them with confidence that I could survive their A-level course, what difference would a course at a top university make? So, I find myself wondering, why didn’t they think my maths was up to scratch and why did I believe them?

According to the 2013 DfE publication ‘Gender and Education’, which compares A-level entries for male and female students, girls’ most popular subject choice is English, while boys' is maths. In fact, JCQ data from the 2014 exam season shows that 65% of those taking further mathematics, physics and economics exams were male. Yet, despite relatively low participation levels in these subjects, data shows high levels of female attainment. The 2014 A-level pass rate for girls was higher in further mathematics, economics and physics than that of boys, mirroring GCSE maths performance trends for the last few years that have seen female students consistently scoring 1-2% higher than their male counterparts.

So, while essentialists might point to biological differences in competencies between men and women to explain subject choice divergence, data suggests that girls can be highly capable in mathematics and other male dominated-subjects. If it is not a question of innate ability, what could explain the gender gap in subject choices?

Dr Abigail Norfleet James, expert on gender-based learning, has argued that in the neurological development of girls and boys minor differences are entrenched by early educational practice. For example, the left side of the brain develops slightly faster in girls and the right side develops faster in boys, meaning that by 20 months, a girl’s vocabulary is on average twice that of a boy. And yet, she argues, that while significant amount of time is spent in school catching up vocabulary-disadvantaged boys, little to no time is spent making up for the spatial or mathematical disadvantage faced by their female counterparts. Is this symptomatic of a culture that signals women are a lost cause when it comes to maths?

Young people could be forgiven for believing this was the case. They are constantly subjected to signalling that some subject areas, and subsequently careers, are better suited to men and others to women. Any studious teenager (oxymoronic though this may sound), reaching for their well-thumbed Oxford dictionary to search for a word for their English homework may stumble across one of the many definitions that have been the subject of a recent twitterstorm.

Canadian anthropologist, Michael Oman-Reagan took to twitter to voice his shock at finding a raft of explicitly sexist usage examples in the Oxford English Dictionary. A quick search shows that the bias in definitions extends to economics: ‘he is responsible for the island’s modest economics’ and mathematics: ‘James immerses himself in the mathematics of baseball’.

And for those sceptical of my allusions to teenage diligence, a spot of procrastination on Netflix or Amazon Prime could lead you to draw similar conclusions. From Mr Robot, the young computer programmer to Mark Watney, the mechanical engineer and astronaut at the centre of The Martian. Meanwhile, a raft of shows present female protagonists who are authors, journalists or practice law. There’s no doubt that these are admirable professions, but male authors and female astronauts should no longer be improbable characters. Yet, they risk being just that if young women feel that maths is not for them and young men leave English to their female peers.

Studies have shown that even a momentary mention of a gender stereotype can have a significant impact on academic performance; a phenomenon that Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson coined “stereotype threat”. In a 1999 study entitled, ‘Stereotype Threat and Women’s Maths Performance’,  Spencer, Steele, and Quinn found that merely telling women that a maths test had shown gender differences led to significantly worse performance than that of men despite the participating women being top performers in maths. Conversely, among a sample who were told that the test showed no gender differences, women performed equally well as men.

Coming back to where we started, my own experience is not unique. Janet Hyde, a professor of Psychology and Women's Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has studied maths ability extensively and found equality in mathematical skill between men and women. Yet, she has found that,

"Parents and teachers give little implicit messages about how good they expect kids to be at different subjects and that powerfully affects their self-concept of their ability. When you are deciding about a major in physics, this can become a huge factor."

Add implicit messages from parents and teachers to misguided use of language and a dearth of role models in the media and it’s not hard to see why boys and girls have different ideas about what subjects they might be good at and what they can aspire to in their futures.

Whether in roles as parents, educators or engaged citizens, let's start challenging those biases at any opportunity we can by not giving up on girls who struggle with maths or boys who find vocabulary tough, but rather actively encourage them to believe they’re just as able as the next person (boy or girl); by introducing "unexpected" role models wherever possible; by believing in our own abilities –  that, with a bit of hard work, we can do the things voices within and around us tell us we can't.

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