It is unclear why the gender attainment gap in A Level Maths1 is so persistent. Despite the widespread acceptance among scientists that differences in the mathematical ability of men and women are negligible2, differing attitudes towards men and women in the field remain stubbornly persistent. Over 20 years ago, Spencer et al.3 documented how awareness of gender-based performance differences could lead to women’s performance in maths deteriorating relative to that of equally qualified men.
Research4 seems to confirm that socio-cultural factors affect teachers’ and parents’ expectations of the abilities of male and female students. These expectations are important as they influence students’ perceptions of their own abilities and can result in self-fulfilling prophecies. Other studies5 seem to suggest that teachers’ gender may affect the performance of students. Given the fact that most secondary school maths teachers are male, the possibility of a stereotype effect seems credible. Under this effect, students fear conforming to negative stereotypes of their ability, which dissuades them from pursuing a field that they could otherwise excel in5.
The picture is complex, however, and some studies6 raise the possibility that threats to masculine identity may result in male teachers eschewing behaviours perceived as ‘feminine’ – such as nurturing or collaborative traits – which may worsen outcomes for their students. So perhaps raising teacher expectations and getting teachers to be more encouraging to their students requires a shift in society’s gendered expectations of teachers’ behaviours too.
Other studies give cause for hope. Good et al.7 found that the message that maths ability is not fixed, but acquired, insulates women from the effects of negative stereotypes, and increases their sense of belonging in maths and intentions to pursue the subject in the future. In this way, parents and teachers should be careful to emphasize the mutable nature of maths ability. Furthermore, we should be careful to avoid letting stereotypes influence our expectations in performance to avoid detrimental outcomes.
A report8 for the Department for Education in 2015 found that achieving 2 or more A levels in science, technology, engineering or maths (STEM) subjects adds 7.8% to a male’s earnings, when compared to gaining only GCSE-level qualifications. Meanwhile, the returns for women are much higher, boosting earnings by 33.1%. This reflects the power of Maths at school to influence earnings in later life. This provides just one reason why we should strive to reduce the gender gap in A-level maths more in the next decade than we have during the last decade.
1 Ofqual. (2020). A level outcomes in England. [online] Available at: https://analytics. ofqual.gov.uk/apps/Alevel/Outcomes/ [Accessed 6 Mar. 2020].
2 Else-Quest, N.M., Hyde, J.S. and Linn, M.C., 2010. Cross-national patterns of gender differences in mathematics: a meta-analysis. Psychological bulletin, 136(1), p.103.
3 Spencer, S.J., Steele, C.M. and Quinn, D.M., 1999. Stereotype threat and women’s math performance. Journal of experimental social psychology, 35(1), pp.4-28.
4 Halpern, D.F., Benbow, C.P., Geary, D.C., Gur, R.C., Hyde, J.S. and Gernsbacher, M.A., 2007. The science of sex differences in science and mathematics. Psychological science in the public interest, 8(1), pp.1-51.
5 Steele, C.M., 1997. A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance. American psychologist, 52(6), p.613.
6 Watson, P.W.S., Rubie-Davies, C.M., Meissel, K., Flint, A., Peterson, E.R., Garrett, L. and McDonald, L., 2015. Gendered Teacher Expectations of Mathematics Achievement in New Zealand: Contributing to a Kink at the Base of the STEM Pipeline?. International Journal of Gender, Science and Technology, 8(1), pp.82-102.
7 Good, C., Rattan, A. and Dweck, C.S., 2012. Why do women opt out? Sense of belonging and women’s representation in mathematics. Journal of personality and social psychology, 102(4), p.700.
8 London Economics (2015). The earnings and employment returns to A levels. [online] Available at: http://londoneconomics.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/London-Economics-Report-Returns-to-GCE-A-Levels-Final-12-02-2015.pdf [Accessed 6 Mar. 2020].