Who says girls can’t do maths?

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From toys to clothing and even an advert featuring Dame Helen Mirren, why do we continue to condition girls into thinking they can’t possibly be good at maths and how do we change ingrained attitudes? Sheena Grant reports.

You don’t have to look too hard to find a stereotype about women and maths.

The idea that maths is a “boy subject” is so deeply-rooted in our society that in 2012 a survey for campaign group National Numeracy showed that while 71% of men describe themselves as being “good or excellent” at maths, just 59% of women do the same.

The problem, say those in the know, is that like many stereotypes, it just isn’t true.

In fact, according to Claire Meadows-Smith, who leads a secondary school maths department and runs community maths schools in Bury St Edmunds and Ipswich, some of the best mathematicians she has ever taught have been girls.


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What girls suffer from, says Claire, is not a lack of ability but a lack of confidence.

And it’s little wonder, thanks to the plethora of negative messages that come their way. From unintentional conditioning by parents who denigrate their own mathematical ability, to crass gender generalisations in advertising and marketing, it’s no surprise many girls don’t equate femininity with number crunching.

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It’s 23 years since the makers of Barbie produced a “Teen Talk” version of the doll that spoke a number of phrases, including: “I love shopping” and “maths class is tough”.

Sadly, in the intervening decades it seems those with the power to influence have learned very little.

Take, for instance, the pink (of course) T-shirt with the words “Allergic to Algebra” emblazoned across the front that went on sale in 2011.

And only this year, beauty giant L’Oreal was forced to change an advert that featured actress Dame Helen Mirren saying: “Age is just a number. And maths was never my thing.”

The message may have been unintended but it couldn’t have been clearer: Dame Helen may be talented, successful and glamorous, but she couldn’t possibly add up a few figures.

Mike Ellcock, chief executive of National Numeracy, whose complaint led to the L’Oreal advert being changed, said: “Throwaway remarks about being ‘no good at maths’ are so easy to make and so damaging in the way they normalise negative attitudes. We know that women and girls often have particularly low levels of confidence - and particularly high levels of anxiety - about maths so it’s especially important that advertising directed at them doesn’t perpetuate the myth that women can’t do maths.” Claire Meadows-Smith agrees. “You have to build up girls’ confidence,” she says. “We are always trying to tell girls they can do maths. Some of my best mathematicians have been girls. They are able to think around problems a bit better than some of the boys. The only thing they are lacking is confidence. Girls always under-estimate how good they are at the subject whereas boys often over-estimate.”

She sees the problem as part of a wider societal one about attitudes to maths.

“You often hear adults boasting about being rubbish at maths,” she says. “I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard parents say they could never do maths when they were at school so are unable to help their own children with the subject.”

Claire, head of maths at St Alban’s Catholic High School in Ipswich, set up The Community Schools four years ago to give students - both boys and girls - more individual attention, boost understanding, confidence and achievement in maths after finding she couldn’t keep up with the demand for one-to-one private tutoring.

There are regular classes for children from as young as eight up to A Level as well as holiday revision courses in the lead up to exams. Recently the programme has been expanded to include English and hopefully, soon, science.

Classes, at evenings and weekends, tend to have equal numbers of boys and girls but Claire says there’s a definite gender difference in confidence and approach.

“Quite by coincidence a lot of the groups we have at the moment have turned out to be either all boys or all girls and actually, that does seem to work best,” she says. “Girls sometimes don’t like the competitive side of whether something is right or wrong. We try to get them to work together on things rather than individually and to talk it through. Often, they’re scared to have a go for fear of getting it wrong but it doesn’t matter. You learn from those mistakes. It is about creating an environment where they don’t feel threatened.”

Her observations appear to be backed up by an international study of gender equality in schools by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, which found that girls’ lack of confidence in their maths abilities affected results and suggested performance could be boosted by changing attitudes and encouraging girls to consider careers involving subjects such as engineering.

So, why does it matter that girls realise their maths potential?

Well, says Claire, quite aside from the fact that a good level of numeracy is an important life-skill, there’s evidence that success in the subject at GCSE level - as well as in English and science - can improve job prospects and earning potential, as well as giving greater access to places at leading universities and improving social mobility.

In fact, recently-published research has found that girls who takes maths and science at A Level will go on to earn wages a third higher than those who stick to the arts and humanities.

The data, produced by the consultancy London Economics, has been trumpeted by Education Secretary Nicky Morgan as evidence of the importance of encouraging girls to take STEM subjects - science, technology, engineering and maths - as a means of closing the gender pay gap.

According to the research, girls who take just one STEM A Level will see their wages rise by an average of £4,500 a year, while those who follow two maths or science subjects are predicted to get a corresponding 33.1% pay boost.

Researchers from London Economics looked at data relating to 13,000 people who had gone through the education system since 1970 and found that those who performed well in primary school maths tests went on to earn 25% more than their peers regardless of what other qualifications they picked up as teenagers.

The Further Mathematics Support Programme, which aims to increase the number of students studying further mathematics A Level, says more girls than ever are taking the subject with a total of around 35,000 completing an A Level last summer.

But there is still a way to go to end gender disparities. The proportion of A Level maths students who are girls is 39% and for A Level further mathematics the figure is just 28%.

Claire believes organisations like hers could have a key role to play in redressing the balance. Unfortunately though, there is a cost attached if children and their parents decide to go down such a route - around £100 for six sessions. And many would argue youngsters should be able to get all the tuition they need to succeed without resorting to private tutoring, which, of course, not everyone can afford.

“We all learn at different rates,” says Claire. “In school lessons the class sometimes moves on before everyone is ready and that reinforces some pupils’ feeling of a lack of confidence. I always say to people, why not try and get better at maths? Just from a life-skill point of view it’s a good thing to have and essential at any age. I’ve had brilliant girl students going into apprenticeships and taking scholarships at university and I know I could have more. We just have to unlock their confidence.”

For more information about the Community Schools visit www.thecommunityschools.co.uk.

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