Gender Equity in Mathematics Education

Article excerpt

Gender equity in mathematics education is a complex issue. Although males and females take similar mathematics classes and achieve similar scores on standardized tests throughout the K-12 school years (Kimball 1989; National Science Board 1998), males' participation in mathematics after high school is far greater than females' (National Science Board 1998). Many educators are studying the K-12 school experience in an attempt to understand gender differences in mathematics participation. For example, as we make advancements in assessing children's thinking, we are starting to find gender differences in young children's mathematics achievement. In a large study of first through third graders, in which individual interviews were used to assess children's thinking, researchers found gender differences in children's solution strategies (Fennema et al. 1998). Other researchers are asking teachers what information they can offer to advance our understanding of gender equity in mathematics.

I interviewed elementary school teachers to see how they address the problem of gender equity in mathematics education (Levi 1995). Although all the teachers whom I interviewed believed that they had a role in addressing gender equity, their responses revealed a range of beliefs about actions that they could take to increase equity in females' and males' learning of mathematics. As I listened and worked to understand these teachers' ideas, I found myself reexamining and redefining my own beliefs. Just as we can learn about mathematics by working with others, so can educators learn more about addressing the problems of gender equity by regularly discussing these issues among themselves.

Discussing the problem of gender equity can be particularly difficult. Even when we have time for such discussions, we might assume that others believe as we do; but if we suspect that others hold different beliefs, having such a discussion might be awkward. Unfortunately, it is difficult to improve our problem-solving skills if we are working and thinking in isolation. What follows are descriptions of three different roles that teachers play in approaching the issue of gender equity. These "roles" became evident during the course of the interviews. I hope that reading about these perspectives will help you reexamine how you solve the problems of gender equity in your classroom. These perspectives might also give you some impetus to discuss this issue with your colleagues.

Teachers' Roles in Addressing Gender Equity in Mathematics

All the teachers whom I interviewed were deeply concerned about gender equity in mathematics and believed that they had a responsibility to address this issue. They talked at length and in depth about their philosophies, their policies, and specific actions that they took in their classrooms. Clearly, these teachers saw addressing gender equity as a complex problem. The following paragraphs describe the three overall roles that these teachers play in confronting this issue.

Role 1: Provide equal opportunities and respect differences

Some teachers believe that their role in addressing gender equity is to provide equal opportunities and to respect differences in the classroom. For example, one third-grade teacher made this comment:

I think everybody should have an opportunity to try and see if they like math, but if they don't like it, they don't like it.... I do think boys do some things differently than girls do. A lot of things.... It's not a problem that boys and girls are different. I don't push them to all be the same.

These teachers monitored their behaviors to ensure that they gave girls and boys the same types of opportunities to learn mathematics and participate in mathematics activities. These teachers were not concerned, however, if boys tended to participate and excel in mathematics and girls chose other areas.

Many of these teachers thought that the biggest problem with gender inequity in mathematics is that society tends to value activities in which males participate over activities in which females participate. …