Mathematics for Girls Matters
In one way or other, mathematics is used by everyone, every day, everywhere. Most people think of it as numbers we count with, fractions, decimals, money, percentages, shapes, tables, and graphs. But mathematics is bigger than that! It is a way of thinking, and it is all about patterns and logic. It therefore helps us to understand the world around us, and make informed decisions.
However, even though the idea of universal education for children was born 500 years ago, it has taken an incredibly long time to close the gender gap where more girls have missed out on education. Even today, some 32 million primary school age girls world-wide miss out on school (data.unicef.org/topic/education/primary-education) and in many parts of the world, there remains significant difference in the mean years of schooling a girl will receive (ourworldindata.org/global-rise-of-education).
Girls' education is imperative in impoverished places because it leads to economic growth and social development (www.globalpartnership.org/blog/why-educating-girls-makes-economic-sense), in particular:
- There is an estimated 25% increase in wages returned on each year of secondary education (World Bank)
- Educated girls have fewer, healthier, and better educated children (following the adage “When you educate a boy, you educate an individual; when you educate a girl, you educate a community”).
- In Pakistan, working women with high levels of literacy skills earn 95% more than women with weak or no literacy skills; the differential is only 33% among men. Educated women take a greater economic role in their families and communities, and they tend to reinvest 90% of what they earn into their families. (UNESCO 2013/4 Education for All Global Monitoring Report)
- Educating girls helps delay early marriage and parenthood. If all girls had secondary education in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia, it is estimated that child marriage would fall by 64%, from almost 2.9 million to just over 1 million.
Just this week, the BBC reported a striking weakness in adult financial skills. (www.bbc.com/news/education-43384434). The original research quoted shows a noticeable overall gender gap in favour of men, and this despite the data coming primarily from countries where girls have comparable access to education.
It is clear that numeracy plays a key role in empowering girls towards financial independence, and managing household finances and businesses. It makes it harder for girls to be taken advantage of financially, and if an educated girl has a better chance of financial independence, then she might gain the confidence to get out of an abusive relationship or avoid child marriage. And she will pass her knowledge on to her children.
It is embarrassing that we must speak in such terms, but the reality of global gender inequality, itself a poor euphemism for the exploitation of women, is so vast that we are morally compelled to do so.
As we move higher in school, there becomes a pronounced gender gap in advanced mathematics courses. This is despite the fact that girls are just as capable in the subject.
- By the age of 15, 51 out of 54 countries in PISA 2006 showed a statistically significant difference in the proportion of boys and girls planning a career in engineering or computing, all towards boys.
- In the UK A-levels course, the ratio of boys to girls is more than 1.5:1, and in the Further mathematics course it nears 3:1. (furthermaths.org.uk/docs/Gender%20Literature%20Review%20FINAL%20Oct.pdf)
- In Australia, the ratio of boys to girls studying advanced mathematics courses is almost 2:1. (amsi.org.au/publications/participation-in-year-12-mathematics-2006-2016)
We need to encourage more female mathematicians because:
- We have a global shortage of mathematicians, especially teachers who are subject experts in mathematics.
- We need significantly more female mathematics teachers, especially in secondary school, to inspire future generations.
- Girls can bring a different perspective and different creative flair to solving problems in the workforce.
- Girls are often better at communication and collaboration than their male counterparts.
- We need to hear female voices of leadership to interpret statistics for other women in the community, since men will often avoid talking about sensitive topics such as women's and children's health, and topics which may lead to a shift in the balance of power to gender equality.
- Mathematics teaches the skills of logic, critical analysis, and problem solving that are a foundation of stronger leaders.
We can encourage girls to continue with advanced mathematics by:
- Shaking off negative stereotypes: that mathematics is a subject for “nerds”, that engineering is for men, that it isn't attractive to be smart.
- Highlighting role models for girls just above their own age
- Encouraging girls to carefully choose their own paths, rather than following their friends in subject choice
- Really promoting mathematics for girls around age 14, because it is in the next couple of years that we see significant drop in girls' participation in advanced mathematics courses.
Overall, there must be a significant change in male attitude and behaviour to respect the talents of our female peers, to encourage them to follow their chosen paths, and to remove stumbling blocks in their path rather than placing them there.
While I have certainly painted a grim picture and a daunting challenge for the future, it also serves to explain why the girls around the world who are achieving in mathematics, are really significant and worth commending.
I was delighted to be in Seoul for the North East Asia Mathematics Competition from 26-28 February, and meet so many exceptionally talented students.
It was an honour for me to meet Anna Choi (pictured) from Island School, Hong Kong, who introduced herself after the presentation I gave. She expressed her interest in the history of mathematics, her desire to study it alongside the subject itself, and her hope to contribute to society through her work in the future. I was incredibly impressed how she was so quietly spoken, yet self-confident, aware, energetic, well read, thoughtful, and articulate. She is an exceptional young lady, possessing so many qualities of a strong educated young leader. It was little surprise to me that at the Gala Dinner that evening, she kept returning to the stage for more and more awards, and finished top placed girl in the Seoul competition. Despite the imbalances in the world, how wonderful it is to meet someone who succeeds regardless, and does so with such humility.
While they may be fewer in number than the boys across the four venues of this competition (38% at junior level, 31% at senior level) the girls had a comparable proportion of “top 10” placings. They are clearly every bit as good as the boys, and the beauty of this competition is how with like minds around them, the girls motivate and strengthen each other. This promotion of girls mathematics is a major reason why Haese Mathematics is a proud sponsor of this competition, and we would love to see the proportion of girls increase over time.
The top students from each venue won entry to the World Mathematics Championships to be held in Melbourne in June. To Anna and the other girls who won entry, we wish great success in this competition and in their future studies. We hope they will be great inspiration for the next group of girls to follow.
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