There’s now very little difference in the results of girls and boys in mathematics in most countries. However, in most parts of the world fewer girls and women than boys and men choose to study the subject and to take up careers in mathematics-related fields. However, gender issues in maths are not limited to achievement in tests and choices of courses. The idea that mathematical knowledge is objective, rational and abstract rather than subjective, emotional and concrete reinforces oppositions that feed into wider gender inequalities.

Biological explanations have been offered for gender differences in relation to mathematics based in gender differences in chromosomes, hormones and brain lateralisation. However, biological explanations fail to account for the rapid changes that have taken in women’s mathematical performance over time and in the variation in how many women take-up and succeed at mathematics across different countries (and the variation in these between men and between women within the same country by ethnicity and social class background).

Psychological explanations have been offered for gender differences in mathematics based in differences in relation to self-esteem, confidence, anxiety and/or self-concept. For example, research suggests that girls and women are more likely than boys and men to see success in mathematics as due to chance and to see failure as the result of stable and internal factors such as the difficulty of the subject and their inability at it. However, these explanations have been criticised for presenting girls’ and young women’s attitudes to mathematics as individual problems, failing to take into account the context of the classroom, the school and the wider society. As Cordelia Fine writes in her critique of psychological approaches based in neuroscience:

it’s easy to underestimate the impact of what is outside the minds on what takes place inside … As Harvard University psychologist Mahzarin Banaji puts it, there is no ‘bright line separating self from culture’, and the culture in which we develop and function enjoys a ‘deep reach’ into our minds.

Sociological explanations have focused on differences in the socialisation of boys and girls. They have pointed to: the lack of female role-models; the widespread gender stereotyping in mathematics textbooks, the mass media and the views of parents, teachers and peers; and boys’ dominance of school lessons, monopolizing classroom space, equipment (particularly technology), interactions and teacher time.

In an influential critique of all of the explanations discussed above, Valerie Walkerdine argued that the problem had never been one of ‘real’ differences between boys’ and girls’ performances in mathematics but instead was about how these differences were constructed. For example, she noted that girls’ better average performance than boys in early mathematics tests in the UK was labelled (by teachers and researchers) as resulting from rule following and rote learning, things which were not seen as valuable to pursuing higher level mathematics. In contrast boys’ lower average test scores were taken as evidence of their real understanding and flair in the subject, things which were seen to stand them in good stead for the future. She explained that these constructions are possible because of an alignment of rationality with masculinity in Western thinking, in opposition to femininity which is aligned with the irrational and the emotional.

The idea of an alignment of mathematics with masculinity can be connected with contemporary popular cultural images of mathematicians, for example in the Hollywood films A Beautiful Mind and Good Will Hunting and the US TV series Numb3rs. In these, male mathematicians are depicted both as socially incompetent (geeks and nerds) and as heroic in their quest for knowledge which they can use to save others.

Many researchers have looked at how pedagogy, curriculum and assessment can be changed to challenge the association between mathematics and masculinity. Some of these are listed in the links and reading listed below. In Genderwatch, Tamara Bibby, Pat Drake, Hilary Povey and I  suggested some activities that can be used by teachers to address gender issues by exploring the what, why, how and who of maths. Two of these are reproduced here:

What is maths?

Ask your pupils/students this.

  • Get them to draw spider diagrams with all their ideas about maths and then collect them in (you might like to do this first for your own views).
  • What do your learners think maths is? Are their views as you expected? What surprises you? Why? What doesn’t surprise you? Why?
  • What are the similarities and differences between girls’ and boys’ views? And what about between the views of learners from different ethnic groups?
  • Do the spider diagrams relate maths to any other school subjects or any out-of-school activities? Are any of these gendered (associated mainly with masculinity or femininity) or mainly with boys or girls from particular ethnic or social class backgrounds?
  • Thinking generally, make a list of all the subjects taught in your school. Which ones are most like maths and which ones least like maths? Is there any way that you can teach maths that connect it with any of the subjects you identified it as being least like?

Who are the people who do maths?

Maths is often seen as distant from human activity. This can make many learners, but particularly girls and women, find it difficult to relate to maths. Look through the textbooks, websites, videos and other resources that you use to teach maths. Make a list of any mathematicians named.

  • How many mathematicians are named?
  • How many are men? How many are women? What are their ethnic, national and social class backgrounds? How many are living?
  • What kind of information are we given about them? What possibilities are there for learners to identify with them?

Useful Links

Incorporating the mathematical achievements of women and minority mathematicians into classrooms: Sarah J. Greenwald discusses some ways that she has done this in university mathematics classes in the US

Biographies of women mathematicians: A wide-ranging resource on women past and present

The International Organisation of Women and Mathematics Education: This site contains a list of readings on gender and mathematics and an archive of the organisations newsletters

Mathematical images and gender identities: Research into how representations of mathematics and mathematicians in popular culture are gendered and how these influence male and female learners

Further Reading

Boaler, J. (1997) Experiencing School Mathematics: teaching styles, sex and setting. Buckingham, Open University Press: A longitudinal study comparing ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ teaching styles of mathematics. Boaler finds that progressive styles are more successful. Traditional styles of teaching are shown to particularly prejudice the chances of high ability girls and working-class students.

Burton, L. (Ed) (1986) Girls Into Mathematics Can Go. London, Cassell: An early book on gender equity and mathematics but one filled with ideas for how to approach the issue in the classroom.

Buxton, L. (1981) Do you panic about maths? Coping with maths anxiety. London, Heinemann: This book contains detailed case studies on the panic maths can induce in many people and its connections with gender, authority (of teachers, parents and of maths) and time pressure.

Henrion, C. (1997) Women in mathematics: the addition of difference. Bloomington, Indiana, Indiana University Press: This book contains enlightening biographies based on interviews with contemporary female mathematicians: Karen Uhlenbeck, Marion Pour-El, Mary Ellen Rudin, Fan Chung, Joan Birman, Lenore Blum, Judy Roitman, Vivienne Malone-Mayes and Fern Hunt. Henrion also analyses key mathematical myths such as mathematicians work in complete isolation and mathematicians do their best work in their youth.

Mendick, H. (2006) Masculinities in Mathematics. Maidenhead, Open University Press: Mendick discusses how the alignment of mathematics with masculinity creates tensions for girls and women doing the subject. She illuminates what choosing mathematics means for students drawing on interviews with young people studying mathematics in England.

Walkerdine, V. (1998) Counting Girls Out (second edition). London, Falmer: The question about girls’ attainment in mathematics is met with every kind of myth, false ‘evidence’, and theorising about the gendered body and the gendered mind. The book tackles issues and prejudice and examines and puts into perspective many claims that have been made about women’s minds. It also probes the relationship between evidence and explanation: why are girls still taken to be lacking when they perform well, but boys are credited even when they do not?


Page author: Heather Mendick
Updated: 15th January 2013

Leave a Reply