Gender: Mathematical achievement – Implications for girls

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Vaidah Mashangwa

Mathematics is an essential subject in all spheres of life. It is key at all levels of learning, from primary, secondary up to higher institutions of learning, hence much time and effort is given to the study of the subject.

Research points out that the development of the world and indeed individual countries, largely depends on the extent to which the populace has attained literacy, numeracy, communication and problem solving skills.

In the modern world, Mathematics is increasingly used in Science, Technology, Industry, Education and Economics just to mention but a few. At household level when baking and cooking, for example, it is imperative to use the correct amount of ingredients otherwise a cake won’t be a cake in the end. When sewing and shopping, people have to have a basic understanding of mathematical language and skills.

Everyone therefore needs basic numeracy. Those who pass through primary school certainly acquire the skills in mathematics that are adequate for domestic needs.

Daily, nearly everyone, whether young or old, does basic calculations with numbers, money and can recognise shapes and figures as well as properties. It is with this in mind that upon attaining independence, the government of Zimbabwe, through its 1980 manifesto, declared one of its objectives as to give every adult with little or no educational opportunity the right to literacy, numeracy and adult education. Even with the democratisation of education the government had the same aim – the achievement of basic literacy by the majority of the people.

It is now government’s requirement that everyone who enrols at a tertiary institution should have Mathematics at O-Level. While this is step in the right direction, some interviewees pointed out that the strength in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (STEM) subjects differ from one individual to the other, especially the performance of girls in Mathematics. Indeed much has been said about the performance of girls and boys in Mathematics.

According to research, pupils’ attitude towards Mathematics is plainly negative and the performance of the girl child towards Mathematics appears to deteriorate steadily through the years of secondary schooling. According to a survey conducted in secondary schools many students pointed out that they did not like Mathematics because of its abstract nature and that it is not related to reality. It further revealed that most students did not like Mathematics because it is about facts, rules and computations to be remembered.

Unlike subjects like Ndebele and English, Mathematics does not involve the learner in revealing emotions or opinions that is; it is not communicative in nature. The dislike of Mathematics by people was therefore associated with anxiety and fear emanating from negative perceptions and attitudes. Research further revealed that boys demonstrated greater confidence in their own Mathematical ability than girls.

On computational tasks female students seem to be slightly superior to boys before high school with little or no gender differences at high school. On problem solving, moderate-sized differences were observed between male and female students in high school.

Some researchers have alluded to the fact that frequently female students have lower perceptions of competence and lower performance expectations in Mathematics. Studies carried out in Botswana, Mozambique and Zimbabwe revealed that the performance of girls in Mathematics was slightly lower than that of boys. What then are the implications in terms of female career path and development?

These observations correlated with the number of females who took up Mathematics in the lower sixth form as well as at university level. However, there is a steady increase in the number of female students taking up sciences at university level.

To a large extent the academic performance of children and attitude towards such subjects like Mathematics is highly influenced by the parent’s beliefs, stereotypes and expectations. Parents of girls are likely to discourage girls to take up STEM subjects and are less likely to buy mathematic related toys and games.

Parents of girls normally buy dolls and cooking utensils. Therefore, parents hold sex-differentiated beliefs about mathematical ability. They ought to encourage girls to take up STEM subjects. The career path of a child largely depends on the advice, guidance and direction by parents.

Parents should not be end receivers of academic performance of their children but that they should constantly encourage their children to study. Apart from that parents ought to provide the required resources for effective learning to take place. Learning outcomes are a result of both internal and external forces merging to produce a complete learner. When a child passes or fails parents should not blame teachers but should see themselves as part of the learning process.

When parents view girls as less intelligent and academically unable, physically weaker and less confident than boys, girls attitudes, beliefs, perceptions and aspirations end up being a mirror image of those of their parents and, of course, their teachers.

When girls do not take up STEM subjects it also limits their participation in the key sectors in the labour force. In 2013, 50 percent of women were in the labour force but that has steadily decreased. If girls do not have STEM subjects that affects their career choice as they are forced to accept whatever low paying and low skilled work that is available. Higher levels of educational attainment are associated with increased earnings for women. Generally young women transition rates from education to employment are consistently lower than that of young men due to poor career choices and subject choices at A Level.

Young women are afraid to take up STEM subjects.

This scenario has led to high levels of unemployment in many regions. Due to wrong career choices women earn less than men. Data from France, Germany Sweden and Turkey suggest that women earn between 31 percent and 75 percent less than men over their lifetime.

Globally women are over represented in clerical and support positions (53 percent) and in service and sales roles (55 percent) compared to managerial occupations (33 percent). They are also underrepresented in skilled work, agriculture and fisheries (37 percent). Women account for at least 36 percent of physicians and surgeons compared to 90 percent of registered nurses. Between 2000 and 2010 there has been an increase in the share of women in leadership and management occupations.

There is dire need for innovative approaches to education and training that challenge stereotypes and that are designed to reach women and girls throughout their lives. There should be programmes that encourage girls to study technical subjects and this is being done through career guidance in schools.

For women who make it into traditionally male occupations support is needed to prevent the leaky “pipeline effect” whereby women drop out of work before they reach more senior positions. The other effective way to ensure movement of women in the occupational ladder is the use of quotas. For example Norway introduced a 40 percent quota for women in corporate boards in 2006 and this was fulfilled in two years. Other countries like Belgium, Iceland, Italy, Malaysia, Netherlands and Spain also followed suit. In Zimbabwe the affirmative action has also seen more women enrolling at tertiary institutions.

About the writer: Vaidah Mashangwa is Bulawayo Provincial Development Officer in the Ministry of Women Affairs, Gender and Community Development. She can be contacted on +263772111592 or email vmashangwa@gmail.com

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