The Gender Gap in Maths

On Thursday 19th January, I was invited onto the Today Programme on Radio 4 to comment on some new research about the ‘gender gap’ in the highest levels of Maths.
 
As is often the case, I had lots more I could have said, but we were restricted by time, and, of course that it was a news programme not a major documentary feature. 
 
The interview is available on audioboo, and there is more information on the new research from the Universities of Leeds and Missouri on a youtube video.  The new work effectively discredits research done in 1999 which suggested that the reason women weren’t seen at the highest levels in maths was because of the ‘stereotype effect’ where women had been led to believe that they wouldn’t be clever enough to do that well at maths, so they didn’t try. One outcome was that money was put into highlighting female role models, to try and combat the negative stereotyping.
 
Having re-examined the data, Dr Stoet and his colleagues said that the original statistical analysis was invalid, and did not support the ‘stereotype effect’ being a major influence. This could mean money has been wasted, and could still be being wasted, which could have been directed to more useful purposes.
 
So what actions should we take as a result of Dr Stoet’s work?
 
The gender gap certainly does exist.  At A level, there is already a gender gap, with only 40% of the Maths A levels being taken by girls.  With Further Maths, that drops to 30%.  Dr Stoet noted that a woman has never won the Fields Medal, generally seen as equivalent to a Nobel Prize in Mathematics.
 
I assume there are a number of reasons why the proportion of women decreases as you move up the echelons in Maths.  My concern over the publicity from Dr Stoet’s work discrediting the basis of the ‘stereotype effect’ theory is that the knee jerk response will be ‘there, it shows that women aren’t up to it – it’s not just that they think they aren’t’.  Of course, this is not a conclusion you can draw at all from Dr Stoet’s work.
 
The resulting action I would like to see is to have greater emphasis on more recent research which could reveal why there is a gender imbalance. For example, the ASPIRES project by Kings College London which is looking at the aspirations and choices of 10-14 year olds across STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths).
 
A couple of weeks ago, they produced a report based on their research work so far, which debunks some of the traditional myths about young peoples’ attitudes, and gives guidance about what really does make a difference, eg families are strong influencers, so we should reach out to parents, not just girls themselves.  The full report can be downloaded from the bottom of this Science Council press release.
 
Professor Louise Archer and her colleagues on the ASPIRES team have also been looking at self-identity as an issue.  This is not as straightforward as lacking confidence, as might have been implied by the ‘self-image’ references in Dr Stoet’s work.  Rather it is that the girl does not see herself as the kind of person who would be a scientist or an engineer – it doesn’t fit her sense of identity.  If that is the case, maybe the problem is not with the self-image of the girl, but the image, or even the reality, of the STEM roles themselves.
 
UPMAP is a research project at the Institute of Education looking into post 16 uptakes of maths and physics.  There is an indication that girls are less likely to be encouraged to pursue maths by their families, and within their social circles. 
 
Research from the Institute of Physics has resulted ‘Girls in the Physics Classroom – a Teachers’ Guide for Action’  – one of the so-called ‘Red Books’.  This gives strategies to increase the engagement, attainment and progression of girls in physics lessons, based on both research and practical experience. It gives the three key influences on students’ attitude to physics, their self-concept of the subject, their experience at school, and how supportive they find their teacher. OK, this is physics, not maths, but I found the content really interesting and useful.
 
But does it matter that there are fewer women at the higher levels of maths?  Should we just accept that in general women are less motivated, or interested, and leave it at that?
 
For years, I’ve heard people say the same about women in engineering – that there’s no point pushing it, as women are just not interested.  I was pleased to mention in the interview the statistic that in the UK we have the lowest proportion of women as professional engineers for anywhere in Europe.  8.7% of our professional engineers are women.  In Sweden it is 25%.  Dr Stoet suggested that it could even be hormones in the womb that give girls different interests and abilities later in life.  Are the hormones in Sweden so different from the UK? The original work came from UKRC, with a follow up report from Engineering UK ‘An Investigation into why the UK has the lowest proportion of female engineers in the EU’  
 
I think we have moved on a great deal since 1999 when the original ‘stereotype effect’ work was done.  There is a lot more scientific research work for us to be basing our actions on.  Back then there was a sense that the girls themselves needed to change – to improve their self confidence.  Now there is a greater realisation that there are many other things that could change, rather than putting all the onus on the girls themselves – from parental influence and class teaching methods to societal attitudes and expectations.