Gender Issues in the Classroom: A Comparison of Mathematics Anxiety

By Campbell, Kathleen T.; Evans, Cay | Education, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Gender Issues in the Classroom: A Comparison of Mathematics Anxiety


Campbell, Kathleen T., Evans, Cay, Education


The underachievement of females in society cannot be measured by grades in school because female academic performance is consistent with that predicted by standardized ability tests (Stockard & Wood, 1984). Female underachievement is evident, nevertheless, in talent development, occupational attainment, and self concept as adults. According to Reis (1987), this phenomenon is apparent in intelligent women "who do not achieve similar professional accomplishments as their male counterparts" (p. 84) and is reflected in "what a person believes can be attained or accomplished in life" (p. 84).

The present status of women in the workforce provides the best evidence that "many gifted women are functioning as underachieving adults" (Davis & Rimm, 1989, p. 337). Despite the increasing trend of women entering predominantly male-dominated careers, the fact remains that women still occupy stereotypical roles (Davis & Rimm, 1989). A 1985 report by the Women's Bureau of the United States Department of Labor (Fuller, 1990) indicated that the top ten jobs for women are secretary, cashier, bookkeeper, registered nurse, waitress, elementary school teacher, nursing aide, sales supervisor, and typist. A recent report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (1994) indicates that the 1993 status of females, although slightly altered, has remained basically the same.

Dembart (1984) reported that, although female scientists and engineers increased 200% between 1972 and 1982, women still represent only 3.5% of the 2 million American engineers and only 12% of the 225,000 physical scientists. A more recent report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (1994) indicates that in 1993, although female scientists and engineers increased 250% between 1982 and 1993, women still represent only 8.6% of all engineers and 30% of all physical scientists. The 1982 figures from the National Center for Educational Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, reported a dramatic increase in the number of females receiving bachelors' and professional degrees in male-dominated fields. With the exception of health professions, however, the percentage of females is still much lower than that of male (Davis & Rimm, 1989).

Sells (1973) called mathematics the critical filter which bars females from the higher paying, more prestigious occupations. As Rekdal (1984) pointed out, "Mathematics is a major key necessary in unlocking a majority of important career opportunities available for our most intelligent and academically able students" (p. 11).

The theory that males are innately superior in mathematical ability began a controversy that has been waged for years (Mccoby & Jacklin, 1974; Benbow & Stanley, 1980, 1982, 1983). The importance of the math differences hypothesis is related to the professional development of females because "male-dominated fields that convey high status and good financial rewards ... require skill in mathematics" (Davis & Rimm, 1989, p. 353, emphasis in original).

Many studies on gender differences in quantitative abilities have emerged since the Maccoby and Jacklin (1974) text on sex differences. Benbow and Stanley's (1982) study of adolescents in the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY) concluded that males significantly outperformed females on the College Board's Scholastic Aptitude Test in the mathematical part (SAT-M). More recent studies concerning gender differences in quantitative performance are mixed. Many reported that the gender gap is narrowing (Brophy, 1985; Freidman, 1989; Marsh, 1989; Hayes & Slate, 1993), while others reported not only that males consistently outperform females at the highest end of the mathematics ability continuum (Feingold, 1988), but also that males and females approach mathematical problem solving differently (Mills, Ablard, & Stumpf, 1993; Low & Over, 1993). Gallagher and DeLisi (1994) studied males and females who had scored at least 670 on the math portion of the SAT. …

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