At school, maths was actually my favourite subject. I loved the challenge of solving problems and I will admit that memorisation in primary school was not the struggle it may have been for some of my peers. I am not advocating for memorisation at all, but this was certainly the focus of my schooling in the 80s.
I continued with my math studies throughout my schooling, completing what was then called (24 years ago) Maths 1 & Maths 2 in South Australia at year 12. Looking back now, I was probably the only girl in the class, but I never really paid much attention to that and I simply don’t recall. I was a confident, competitive young person who relished in challenging the boys whether it be in my studies or on the basketball court.
This confidence and success in maths did not lead to a field in the maths or sciences, but it has certainly influenced the way I approach problem solving and my resilience in sitting with a challenge that takes time and patience. My daughter (Year 11) has rarely sought my support with her math homework, but when she does it is not my capacity to recall number facts, formulas or procedures that makes my support valuable, instead it is my ability to rely on my understanding of number and mathematical concepts that helps. It may mean I take the long way around and eventually come back to the formula which provides the efficient process, but I am able to explain the reasoning behind what she is being challenged by. No doubt this will become less likely as she advances through her studies.
My willingness to struggle and work through a problem is not only evidence of my own confidence gained through my maths experiences, but it also provides a model for my daughter. She won’t hear me say “I have never been good at maths” or “I just don’t have a maths brain” which unfortunately is the message many girls receive. For girls, it is the attitude of their mothers that has the most significant influence on their own mindsets.
Not all girls are equal…..in attitudes to maths!
I recently connected with a school friend whom I had a healthy rivalry with throughout primary and middle schooling. She was a great problem solver and we relished many afternoons nutting out maths challenges and were fortunate to have some great maths teachers that stretched us. After year 11 I moved from Darwin to Adelaide which meant we were no longer classmates. It wasn’t until recently when we reminisced about our competitiveness and how she always had the edge in writing whilst I the more logical subjects, that we came to discuss our year 12 experiences. She avoided maths in year 12 because, without me, she would have been the only girl! This in 1993, in a secondary college of over 1000 students!
So how much has changed?
Last year at my school, girls made up only 9 of the 26 students in Maths Applications and only 1 of the 9 in Mathematical Studies. It is simply not good enough.
You don’t have to look far to find research around girls lacking confidence in maths and science today, even to be labelled “maths anxiety”.
So it seems our work needs to be dedicated to creating curious, creative and confident girls willing to take risks and tackle hard problems, in spite of the cultural conditioning that sees lower expectations of them. This work is critical for more than just gender equality. Achieving parity in maths and science fields between women and men offers significant economic as well as social benefits. I look forward to the day when our physics and specialist maths classes are equally taken on by girls and boys.
“When students are more self-confident, they give themselves the freedom to fail, to engage in the trial-and-error processes that are fundamental to acquiring knowledge in mathematics and science.” – OECD 2015