Few people working in any field of education have not heard of the problem of girls and mathematics; yet one could argue that the problem is of recent origin. Until about two decades ago the lower participation and achievement in mathematics of girls than boys was regarded as natural and normal, almost certainly genetically determined and neither a problem for girls nor for society. While there are still those who believe it to be 'in the nature of things' that girls should be 'less mathematically inclined' than boys, on the whole the situation today is different from twenty years ago. Schools Commission Projects of National Significance are devoted to overcoming the 'problem' which, depending upon one's perspective, is either that girls do not share equally in the bounty that is to be had by those who are mathematically 'well prepared' or that girls provide relatively low 'mathematical yield' to the nation.
The past two decades have also seen a change in the popular conception of girls and mathematics. Just as it was once regarded as common sense that girls could not, should not and would not want to do advanced mathematics, now it has become almost equally accepted that girls can, should and would do advanced mathematics if only their conceptions of themselves with regard to mathematics and their prospective futures were improved. For many, this common sense has expanded to include their poor self-esteem as the location of girls' problem with mathematics.
The purpose of this volume is to add new dimensions to the work on girls, self-esteem and education, and my brief here is to discuss issues of girls' self-esteem with particular reference to the learning of mathematics. I will begin by describing something of our changing interpretation of the problem of girls and mathematics, considering next the question of girls' self-esteem and their participation and achievement in mathematics. Following this I will argue that girls' attitudes and actions with regard to mathematics may be understood by considering the reality of school