Math Girls

Girls and Mathematics

There is a seemingly common stereotype that girls are better at reading while boys are better at mathematics. Indeed, there are statistics to back up this claim, so it is not surprising that this idea is becoming more and more ingrained. On November 28th 2011, the Council of Ministers of Education released a report showing that overall, Canadian students are doing quite well in mathematics according to an assessment program created in 2003. There was no significant difference found between girls and boys in mathematics at the national level – until high-level math knowledge and proficiency  was studied. In this case, boys were able to display better high-level math proficiency than girls (Canada Newswire, 2011).

This report shows that current trends follow the stereotype, but the real question is why this is happening. Although some have claimed that this discrepancy may be due to biological differences between boys and girls, there are also a number of studies that debunk this notion as myth. Janet Hyde and Janet Mertz of the University of Wisconsin in Madison noted in a report published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that their research indicates that it is gender inequality that is the primary cause for this discrepancy, not lack of innate ability (Fox, 2009). Indeed, there are some countries, such as Iceland, Thailand, and the United Kingdom, where girls perform quite well at the higher levels, which would indicate that biology may not be the primary reason for these scores (Fox, 2009).

Mathematics is a tricky subject to teach and discuss. Oddly, it is more controversial than one may expect. Mathematics instruction is swamped with critics who do not fully understand the ever-changing nature of mathematics instruction in Canada (and Ontario in particular). For a prime example of this, look no further than Margaret Wente’s Opinion piece in the September 2011 Toronto Globe and Mail where she makes the claim that current math instruction is “long on discovery and short on practice and problem solving (Wente, 2011)”, and confuses spending time on teaching about social issues with teaching mathematics (as if teachers are unable to do both). Unfortunately, Wente is not alone in her thinking that we have somehow moved towards a mathematics world in which practice has no place. Fortunately for all of us, these are gross misconceptions about the nature of current math instruction.

In fact, problem-solving is at the heart of most mathematics programs, and is a key component in my own math classroom.  Practising our number facts can be a form of problem-solving in and of itself. For a basic example, we can discuss as a class what is the most efficient way of solving 7+8.  We could start at 7 and count on 8 times, but this isn’t particularly efficient. We could start at 8 and count on 7 times, which is slightly more efficient, but not by much. Or, we could work to practice our doubles facts, in which case we could use the known fact 7+7=14 to help us, as then 7+8 must be just one more. It’s efficient, and it takes practice and number sense to master. It also requires us to have teachers who can partition numbers themselves, who are up-to-date on current strategies and best practices, and who can teach their students how to solve problems in many different ways, such as in the admittedly simple example above.

These debates of instruction and theory brings us back to the question of girls and mathematics. According to a study reported by ScienceDaily, our stereotype that boys are better at math than girls may be harming more than our students. Research from the University of Chicago indicates that female elementary school teachers may also be affected. Teacher anxiety in math may negatively affect girls who accept the stereotype that “girls are better than reading, and boys are better at math” (ScienceDaily, 2012). In short, if the teacher believes it to be true, than it may well become true for the girls in the class.

It is hard to blame teachers for feeling anxious about math. As noted, it has become a controversial educational topic, and one in which the experts are not always being trusted. The stereotype that girls are going to struggle in mathematics is widespread, and appears to be having a negative impact on girls of all ages.

In order to tackle this problem, I propose that national attitudes need to change, starting at the classroom level. We need to make sure that both teachers and students are aware that strong mathematical proficiency is possible for everyone who works hard, practices, and problem-solves (and that mathematics instruction is not a matter of one versus the other). Our teachers need to be trained such that they feel perfectly comfortable teaching mathematics in a variety of different ways. They need to be proficient in a variety of strategies so that they can reach all of their students. Parents and observers need to place a degree of trust in the math experts that have helped Canada score so highly in mathematics already.

This is not always easy. However, I am very proud of my female students for their diligent work, which has produced strong mental math skills. They also have a fantastic sense of how to use a variety of different mental and pencil-and-paper strategies to tackle a problem. There is no special instruction for girls; rather, there is dedicated and student-centric instruction for all. Above all, the girls are regularly told that not only can they succeed in mathematics, that together we will ensure that they will succeed.

Paul Lacey
Grade Three Teacher
Children’s Garden School

Works Cited

“Believing Stereotype Undermines Girls’ Math Performance: Elementary School Women Teachers Transfer Their Fear of Doing Math to Girls, Study Finds.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 25 Jan. 2010. Web. 04 Mar. 2012. <>.

“Canadian Students Make the Grade in Mathematics According to Major New Report.” Canada Newswire. CNW Group Ltd., 28 Nov. 2011. Web. 04 Mar. 2012. <>.

Fox, Maggie. “Girls Worse at Math? No Way, New Analysis Shows.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 01 June 2009. Web. 04 Mar. 2012. <>.

“Girls Get Math: It’s Culture That’s Skewed.”, 1 June 2009. Web. 04 Mar. 2012. <>.

Wente, Margaret. “Too Many Teachers Can’t Do Math, Let Alone Teach It.” Phillip Crawley, 29 Sept. 2011. Web. 04 Mar. 2012. <>.