Girls + Math: “Where have all the math girls gone?”

May 9th, 2012

Jessica Shumway, author Number Sense Routines continues our Girls + Math series today with a post on helping girls develop their sense of agency as a way to combat gender stereotypes. Share your thoughts in the comments section.

Research studies and news media articles about the gender differences in mathematics achievement are prevalent and still at the forefront of debates regarding education in our society. Most recently, Kane and Mertz’s 2012 article, “Debunking Myths about Gender and Mathematics Performance,” has received a lot of media and social network attention.

As a mathematics educator, I expect and hope to see both genders do well in mathematics, and I strive to help every child reach her or his potential. Because I believe in every child’s ability to learn mathematics, what concerns me is that schools continue to report girls’ low enrollment numbers in elective math and science classes. More often than not, high school teachers indicate that their advanced math, engineering, and elective physics classes are disproportionately populated with boys.

Where have all the math girls gone?

What is it about these classes that are attracting more boys than girls? What are girls choosing to take instead of math and science classes? As an elementary mathematics teacher and coach, I have observed female students not only enjoying mathematics and science but also demonstrating aptitudes parallel to the male students and developing deep (and, I hope, lasting) interest in math and science. Yet the statistics predict that these girls who are interested in math and science are likely to be underrepresented in such elective and/or advanced courses at the secondary level. Why aren’t they signing up?

I wonder if the stereotypes about girls not being good at math affect female students more than we realize. If this conjecture is correct, by the time these females reach high school, no matter how much they might have loved math in elementary school, they opt not to participate in math and science classes beyond the requirements. Krendl et al. (2008) conducted a study using neuroimaging to see what happens to the brain when a person is confronted with a stereotype. They found that women who were told that “research has shown gender differences in math ability and performance” (reminding women of gender stereotypes in math ability) underperformed on the math problems they were given. The neuroimaging showed that these women’s brains did not show recruitment of the mathematical brain regions and instead showed activity in the region of the brain associated with emotional information, whereas the women in the control group (without the stereotype threat) showed heightened activation in the mathematical brain regions and not in the emotional regions.

Since we know that . . .

* lack of gender equality in American culture is affecting gender differences in math participation (Kane and Mertz 2012),

* many girls are opting not to sign up for higher-level math and science classes, and

* stereotype threat not only produces anxiety toward mathematics but also can affect achievement in mathematics (Krendl et al. 2008),

. . . then I am wondering if developing students’ sense of agency in mathematics could potentially combat some aspects of gender gaps in mathematics and science. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of self-efficacy and developing a sense of agency in learning. I recently revisited one of my favorite books, Peter Johnston’s Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning, and reflected on how we as teachers play a critical role in developing students’ sense of agency. Johnston writes about building agency around successful events and says that, in school, “It is our job to help expand the possible agentive narrative lines available for children to pick up” (2004, 40). I think it is important to talk with girls about the gender stereotypes that they may run across and how these have the potential to impact girls’ own narratives about their math abilities.

Could this development of “agency” be a factor in encouraging more girls to continue to develop their interests in mathematics and science? If developing agency is a critical part of combating gender stereotypes, what are the implications for our teaching? What are the best approaches to developing students’ sense of agency, especially in light of gender stereotypes and inequalities that are still present in society?


Johnston, P. H. 2004. Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Kane, J. M., and J. E. Mertz. 2012. “Debunking Myths about Gender and Mathematics Performance.” Notices of the American Mathematical Society 59(1): 10–21.

Kendl, A. C., J. A. Richeson, W. M. Kelley, and T. F. Heatherton. 2008. “The Negative Consequences of Threat: A Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Investigation of the Neural Mechanisms Underlying Women’s Underperformance in Math.”  Psychological Science 19(2): 168–175.

Entry Filed under: math

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Angie Young  |  May 14th, 2012 at 10:01 am

    I was pleased to see you reference Johnston’s book. I’m reading his newest, Opening Minds. Daily I’ve found myself wrestling with how I pose questions and make suggestions to students because of his insights. I think there is a potential for powerful reforms in education that would affect girls and boys in all subjects.

  • 2. Lucy West  |  May 28th, 2012 at 9:16 pm

    Hi Jessica,

    Thoughtful post. I also love Johnston’s books, both the one you mentioned an the one Angie mentioned. I think it is complex and a bit of a mystery to figure out what the specific reasons are why some girls opt out and some plow through when it comes to math despite being members of the same culture and perhaps hearing the same messages.


  • 3. Jessica Shumway  |  June 7th, 2012 at 9:26 pm

    Angie and Lucy, thanks for the comments on this blog post. Since writing about this topic, I’ve been asking teachers, students, and others who love math what factors encouraged them to pursue mathematics courses or math professional development. I hope to be more aware of and learn more about reasons people pursue mathematics learning. For me, the door to truly loving and appreciating math was opened by the exploration of the deeper, conceptual understanding of big math ideas beyond the mechanical and formulaic aspects of math (you played a major role in this, Lucy!).
    Johnston’s newest book, Opening Minds, is next on my list of summer reading!

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