Maths and bridging imagined gender divide

One common refrain maths schoolteachers had was that girls in general and a good number of boys seemed to lack what they deemed to be talent and interest in learning the subject.
Image used for representational purpose only.
Image used for representational purpose only.

In 2005, Lawrence Summers, then president of Harvard University, made a controversial statement that seemed to imply that women were, in some ways, less able than men in mathematical abilities. This unfortunate and erroneous statement cost Summers his job, and rightly so. Have things changed much since then? I am afraid, not. As recently as in 2009, a study by a woman psychologist at the University of Wisconsin seemed to partially vindicate Summers.

Her conclusions indicated that boys tend to outperform girls at the higher levels of mathematical performance. My own experience as a teacher and researcher of the subject is quite the contrary. Year after year, I have found that the girls in my lectures far outperformed their male counterparts. This is also borne out by another study in the US that asserts that among Asian-American students, girls were performing better than boys at the higher levels of mathematical reasoning and learning. 

Is the situation different in India, especially since Summer’s ill-conceived conclusion? The answer seems to be in the negative. For instance, a few days ago, I was interacting with a group of maths schoolteachers. One common refrain they had was that girls in general and a good number of boys seemed to lack what they deemed to be talent and interest in learning the subject. This feedback was worrying. 

The first thing I learned upon close questioning was that girls tend to shy away from mathematics from an early age. What disappointed me was that it had not struck these teachers to try and explore with a little more depth as to why this was so.  I could also sense that the teachers seemed to feel that mathematics is not everyone’s cup of tea and this ‘maxim’ applied more to girls.

Over time I have learnt that there is no difference in the skills and abilities possessed by girls and boys in the context of mathematics. As little as I can understand, girls tend to be a bit more restrained and self-conscious when it comes to expressing themselves. This is mistaken by teachers to imply that the girl student is not learning well enough. The next step that occurs is when teachers (mostly male teachers but also some women) tend to intimidate the girls by brazenly telling them that they are not good enough. All this tends to happen at an early stage of the school experience. The upshot is that girls then develop a sort of aversion for mathematics. 

What is the remedy? I have, over the years, engaged in several experiments in teaching mathematics to schoolchildren and have found that when I have adopted a collaborative, project-based mode of exploring and solving problems by connecting these problems to real-world situations then the girls and the boys seem to do very well. In fact, they would come up with original solutions. The important thing was that I was always careful to try and not to intimidate anyone and often we would explore the problems together. 
I think we need to pay attention to some of these learnings. No wonder my idea to start a course titled Mathematics Without Phobia is proving to be popular. 

Dinesh Singh

Former Vice-Chancellor, Delhi University; Adjunct Professor of Mathematics, University of Houston, US

Twitter: @DineshSinghEDU

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