Gender divide ... the proportion of girls not studying maths has tripled over the past decade. Photo: iStock
THE proportion of girls not studying any maths for their HSC has almost tripled over 10 years, in a trend experts say is partly due to the perception maths is still a ''boys' subject''.
While boys are abandoning maths at an equally dramatic rate, they still make up the overwhelming majority of students in advanced maths subjects.
The gender disparity is now greater than it was in the 1980s.
In 2001, 7.5 per cent of female students eligible for an ATAR did not study any maths, a new report from the University of Sydney says. A decade later this had jumped to 21.5 per cent. Over the same period, the rate of male students in NSW not studying maths increased from 3.1 per cent to 9.8 per cent.
Illustration: Cathy Wilcox
Despite campaigns to lift the participation of girls in maths and science, the report revealed the gender disparity is now greater than it was in the 1980s.
Rachel Wilson, who helped prepare the report, said the findings were ''deeply disturbing''. She said gender stereotyping could be partly to blame.
''We need a kind of public education program to shift the image of maths,'' Dr Wilson said. ''Simply educating girls about the fact that they are as good as boys at maths is one way to start.''
In a recent international maths and science test, there were no significant gender differences in either year 4 or year 8 for Australian students in mathematics. However, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study found boys enjoyed studying maths more than girls and expressed a greater confidence in the subject.
Julian Wood, a senior education researcher at the University of Sydney, said there was a perception that maths was a ''boys' subject''.
Gender conformity could be difficult for young people to challenge, he said. ''There are persistent patterns and people tend to live those patterns.''
Megan Crambrook was in the top maths class in year 10 at Colo High School, but she completed her HSC last year without any maths because she said the way the subject was taught did not appeal to her.
''It's rote learning and way too rigid for me,'' she said. ''I find I do a lot better when there's a more flexible and personal approach.
''I don't think I've missed out on anything. I've learnt enough skills to get along in daily life.''
HSC enrolment figures from 2001 to 2011 show an increasing proportion of girls studying subjects such as ancient history, biology, English advanced and community and family studies.
Dr Wilson said the proliferation of HSC subjects could also be a factor in the move away from maths. She said there were more than 40 HSC courses, not counting languages, which makes it ''very easy for them to shift into other subjects''.
Dr Wilson is calling for maths to be made a compulsory component of the HSC.
''As far as I can ascertain, we are the only developed country in the world that doesn't have some requirement for maths at the end of high school,'' she said.