Are women underselling themselves at maths?


I have a group of intelligent successful girlfriends who cannot for the life of them split a simple bill.  After every dinner we end up laughing hysterically at our inability to add up the cost of wine and food and then divide equally.  But I’m beginning to realize our self-ridicule and disengagement should put us in the feminist naughty corner.  Because by mocking the mathematical moron within we are actually buying into a stereotype.  Such stereotypes are powerful messages that reduce female success and ensure some areas of society stay male bastions of privilege and power. 

To explain I need to start with the maths. And if you don’t like maths bare with me. Because this will add up. 

Yesterday I heard mathematician and writer Dr Robyn Arianrhod talk passionately about the elegant universal language of maths, its perfect truths, its beautiful equations and its poetic patterns

Here is a woman who did not inherit a maths phobia.  Yet from primary school age many girls distance themselves from maths and downplay their skill.  My own daughter is good at the subject but says she hates it and that the boys love it.  My son is not so good at numbers but doesn't mind them nearly as much.   


Maths is still too often seen as a boys’ subject. Yet this assumption has long been discredited and was completely debunked last year.  Researchers at the University of Wisconsin analyzed the data from 86 countries and found in many there is no gender gap at the average and high levels.  In countries where there is a gender gap it’s decreasing substantially.  Australia’s last NAPLAN results show boys and girls have similar numeracy levels until year 9.  The American researchers concluded any mathematical gender gap is due to cultural factors that differ among countries - and that these factors can be changed. Society gets full marks. Biological determinism a zero.  

So why are there so few female mathematicians?  And why anecdotally do girls seem to like maths less than the boys?

It seems the power of stereotypes is central. 

Dr Vincent Fogliati is a postdoctoral research fellow at Macquarie University concerned about the untapped potential of girls who reject careers in maths.  To study the power of stereotypes he gave student volunteers a test.  Beforehand he told half that men outperform women on the questions and the other half that men and women perform equally well. You don’t have to be a maths whiz to guess what happened.  Those girls who were told that men performed better performed worse on the test and were less likely to want to sign up for more work.  The study concluded that not only does a ‘stereotype threat’ reduce performance but that it also reduces the motivation to improve.

Dr Fogliati says ‘given all devices to succeed, even subtle forces can be debilitating.  Just filling out a gender form in a test can lead to negative performance’.  Interestingly enough, stereotypes can enhance performance too.  When Asian women were asked to mark their gender on a test they performed worse than those who didn’t, but if they were asked to tick signify race they performed better! 

This has huge implications about how we think about things and how we educate our girls and boys. It also proves we need female role models in certain fields.  But even then there’s a problem. 

Catherine Good was identified as a gifted mathematician in High School and perused maths as a career because she felt a duty to increase female participation in the field. But she didn’t feel she belonged.  When she saw a lecture about ‘stereotype threat’ she left maths for social psychology where she has studied the power of belonging ever since.  She’s found the socially stigmatized are more sensitive to it and that this lack of feeling part of a group has contributed to the under-representation of women in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Consider an experiment where students were shown a promotional video for a mathematical college.  One video had 80% of male students milling around, the other had equal numbers of men and women.   While a few may have felt they’d never be short of a date in the male dominated university, most were more motivated to sign up for the college where they wouldn’t be a minority. Women need to feel like they belong in certain communities and understandably, in male-dominated careers they often don’t.  

This has huge implications for other fields such as politics.  When Tony Abbot only gave only one woman a cabinet position he was sending a message that ladies don’t belong there.  The Prime Minister needs to recognize that a boys club can depress women’s desire to join in. 

And for those who fight to belong, even sexist language can set them back. A study of engineering students showed that after interacting with sexist male students the girls performed worse on an engineering test than those interacting with non-sexist men.  Perhaps the atmosphere around Julia Gillard – with many men questioning her legitimacy - did reduce her performance despite her determination not to let them see her cry. 

So what to do? We need to remember we can improve our intelligence and performance and that stereotypes can dumb us down.  We need to assist those struggling in a male dominated field.  And we need to challenge stereotypes for our children and ourselves.  Tonight I’m showing my daughter this video Report card joy: Dad weeps with joy at son's passing grade.  It features a dad weeping and screaming in joy when his son shows him he’s gone from an F to a C in maths.  Boys and girls can improve with love and encouragement, having role models and feeling they belong.  So next time we are out for dinner I’m going to handle the bill with confidence. 

For more detail on Vincent’s research, email