“We cannot hope that many children will learn mathematics unless we find a way to share our enjoyment and show them its beauty as well as its utility.” Mary Beth Ruskai
One thing we can’t escape is the idea that boys generally perform better in mathematics than girls do. To date, you will still continuously hear about boys excelling in maths at school and in maths-related fields at a university level. In fact, while it is great to hear about boys' ability to tackle this complex subject, boys' achievements are so frequently talked about that it seems like maths is a subject that is only manageable by boys. Where does this notion come from?
While both boys and girls show the same amount of interest in mathematical concepts when they are younger, by Grade 2 children are taught by the adults in their lives that boys are more capable at tackling maths concepts.
However, in South Africa, a study called, "The Martha Effect," was conducted by Dr. Nic Spaull and Hendrick van Broekhuizen and this study looked at how well females performed overall at school and in university but where they fell short in the labour market. Having said that, the study found that in South Africa, girls performed far better than boys at mathematics. So if South African females are just as capable as males or even better than males at maths, why is the myth that boys are more capable than girls in mathematics still in existence?
Well, stereotypes need to be broken and girls need to guided to realise their true potential in the subject. With the right amount of guidance, we can see more girls pursuing mathematics and mathematical-related fields at a University level.
Is maths everyone's cup of tea?
Let's look more closely at ways to help your child with maths at home. If you tackle the maths monster in a fun way, you can make your child enjoy maths more.
Dispelling Myths About Mathematics
We know that from a very tender age, gender stereotypes teach young girls and boys that it is boys that perform better in mathematics than girls. This myth tends to be seen as real simply because it is hardly ever that children see women performing jobs in the mathematics field. The media barely ever shows girls doing anything scientific or anything mathematics-related. When last have you heard about a female engineer or data scientist?
So from the portrayal of boys in maths and science-related fields, it seems that boys will be more willing and enthusiastic to excel in the subject. Boys tend to shy away from the idea of taking mathematical literacy and follow the pure maths route at a further Education and Training (FET) level. Boys are far more likely to take mathematics lessons with a tutor so as to improve their understanding of mathematical-related concepts. You would see boys being more intrigued by mathematical games online. Yet it is every child that can succeed in mathematics if children are helped to see their true potential in the subject.
It is about time that we dispel the myth and luckily enough young girls in South Africa have started doing this themselves. Girltivity is a subscription box that focuses on inspiring female role models who have already succeeded in predominantly male fields. Girltivity uses the idea of choosing female role models to get girls to further explore fields such as maths, science, technology, engineering, art, and entrepreneurship. It is this mother and daughters team that has the ability to get South African girls to understand that one’s ability to excel in mathematics and science is in no way dependent on one's gender.
Despite the chances to excel in the subject, many girls miss out on the opportunity to realise their true potential in mathematics because their parents believe that maths is a career field that is best suited for boys and eventually men. However, parents need to realize that there is no need to differentiate between girls and boys in the subject. Girls should not be forced to take on the subject of maths literacy if they are doing well in pure maths at school.
Just like the myth that only boys can do well in mathematics should be dispelled, the archaic idea that some cultures are better inclined to tackle mathematical problems than people from other cultures should also be disposed of.
In the same vein, the myth that some people can never do well in maths must also be disregarded. You must remember that all people are born with the ability to do well at maths and excelling in maths is all about how people recognize patterns.
There is no difference between boys and girls, regardless of age, school, year, and culture. What does this mean? Girls and boys should be given equal opportunity to excel in the subject. Media portrayals should advocate lady mathematicians more often. Parents should find excellent female maths tutors who can help all students to excel.
Also, the myth that learners who choose to do maths literacy are stupid should also be dispelled. Maths is important but students do have the right to choose the courses that they feel comfortable pursuing at a school level.
Thinking about the Mathematical Part of the Brain
Is Maths a Subject Preferred by One Gender?
If we look at all the universities in South Africa, it does seem that girls prefer to pursue studies in the field of Education, the Bachelor of Arts field, and literature studies while more boys prefer to study statistics, data science, and mathematical-related degrees. While further studies is a matter of choice, you cannot say that only one gender is capable of performing well at maths or that one gender prefers maths more. There are some girls who thoroughly enjoy maths.
Do Females and Males Have Math Brains?
Think of all the matric distinctions received by females in the last 5 years. Girls leave university with better results. From as early as grade 2, even if girls manage the basics of mathematics such as counting, distinguishing between even and odd numbers, doing sums, comparing, rounding off, symmetry, telling time, and sorting numbers, it is these same girls who also choose to spread their concentration over other subjects such as English and Social Sciences. Boys on the other hand tend to be fixated with maths and exploring mathematical concepts and thus excel. Both males and females can be good at maths, both genders just need to focus more on the subject.
So why do girls obsess over books instead of calculating?
The 2016 Grade 12 results showed that 57% of boys passed maths compared to 46.4% of South African girls. Now, these statistic seems to show that boys do perform better in mathematics than girls. However, if you study the trend more closely, it becomes clear that 146 270 girls took the exam in comparison to the 119 540 boys who sat for the exam.
Trends from past matric years do prove that while boys drop out of the education system, girls continued to try hard and persevere. So if girls can preserve, why is it that girls pick up a Jane Austen novel instead of a scientific calculator?
Research indicates that the idea of having to use their maths skills psychologically knocks girls off balance. It is inevitably girls who pay the price because of common gender stereotypes that make them believe that they are not capable enough to do maths. Psychologically it is culture, family, and stereotypes that cause girls to choose English over mathematics.
Girls can do well in maths. While it may be harder for learners with specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia to master mathematics, it is also possible to teach maths to even dyslexic students.
Changing the Narrative
It is clear that preconceived notions and stereotypes passed down from parents to children can account for much of the choices that children make in schools.
From a young age, boys are far more intrigued by maths games involving construction and activities that encourage spatial awareness. Girls play indoors trying to mimic the roles that they have seen being played by women in their cultures.
It is inevitable that through play children learn so teachers and parents ought to hop onto the changing of the narrative bandwagon. If teachers include mathematical games into their daily lesson plans, this could be highly beneficial for all and even get girls enthusiastic about advancing their understanding of numerical concepts and allowing girls to want to identify patterns.
Get girls to think of how often they use maths even when doing girl-related things like cooking and baking.
Get girls to understand that maths is important for them as well so that they will be more confident to pursue the subject in the future.
Basic Computational Skills Can be Enhanced with a Tutor
Are We Advocating a Change?
Yes, we are! Girls should always be reminded to follow their passion and not only take on jobs that conform to social stereotypes. Give girls the choice to choose a career based on their own preference.
So change the narrative by roping in a tutor if you feel that your child is not coping with mathematics-both girls and boys can benefit from learning basic computation skills with the help of a tutor.
If you want to stir change from the surface, start by changing stereotypes within your family. Show your child positive role models like girls who have excelled in the fields of science and mathematics.
Once parents move away from outdated thinking and give girls and boys equal chances, children themselves will start to move away from stereotypical thinking and even dispel some myths themselves.
Girls are by their very nature most determined to succeed. However, girls do struggle with timetables and applying calculations. Sometimes mums are also unable to help these girls succeed with more advanced maths calculations. It would be best to rope in an experienced tutor. Maths tutors can play a vital role in enhancing the confidence level of children. Maths tutors can help girls become intrinsically motivated to perform well. A tutor can also explain the valuable role that maths does play in everyday life.
A tutor can get girls involved in the learning process. When girls are involved in the learning process, they perform better.
Children tend to do better when their parents or private tutors are involved in their learning. While structured learning is important, sometimes you must involve fun maths games and apps to show children how fun maths can be.
If you can solve for x, you can solve anything. Irrespective of gender and age, maths is achievable. A keen interest in mathematics from a young age will lead to many doors opening in the field later in life.