Gender and Mathematics: An Issue for the Twenty-First Century. (Research, Reflection, Practice)

By Becker, Joanne Rossi | Teaching Children Mathematics, April 2003 | Go to article overview

Gender and Mathematics: An Issue for the Twenty-First Century. (Research, Reflection, Practice)


Becker, Joanne Rossi, Teaching Children Mathematics


Is gender still a salient equity issue for today's mathematics classrooms? Although considerable progress in women's participation in mathematics has been achieved in the last twenty-five years, inequities still exist. For example, women represent less than fifteen percent of the employed scientists and engineers in computer science, mathematics, agricultural science, environmental science, chemistry, geology, physics and astronomy, economics, and engineering (NSF 1996). Females score an average of thirty points lower than males on the mathematics section of the SAT. Despite more than two decades of intervention, parity remains a vision for the future. This article discusses our role as teachers in giving girls an equitable foundation in mathematics in the elementary grades.

Feminist Models

As research on gender and mathematics has matured, it has evolved from deficit models in which those who do not do well in mathematics (such as females) were compared to those who perform better (such as males). Interventions based on these early "gender differences" models usually focused on characteristics of girls and women and tried to change them to be more similar to those who perform better. In contrast, feminist models recognize that gender is socially constructed and accept that differences are not biologically determined. Gender differences may be attributes to acknowledge and support, rather than deny or change. At the same time, we must ensure that the differences we describe do not become new stereotypes ascribed to all females, and that "different" is not relegated to secondary status.

Women's Ways of Knowing

Traditional ways of teaching mathematics--stressing certainty, a single correct answer, deduction, logic, argumentation, algorithms, structure, and formality--may be particularly incompatible with the ways in which many females learn (Becker 1995; Belenky et al. 1997). Researchers have hypothesized that a different learning style, described in Women's Ways of Knowing (Belenky et al. 1997), might help explain why females avoid mathematics and related careers. In this theoretical model of how women "come to know," the authors present five perspectives: silence, received knowing, subjective knowing, procedural knowing (separate and connected), and constructed knowing.

In the silence perspective, knowledge does not belong to the individual and usually is not vocalized; the learner accepts the judgment of an authority--for example, the teacher--for what is true. In the received-knowing perspective, the student learns only by listening and returns the words of the authority figure. The learner's knowledge is dependent on an external source, and the learner is content to accept the knowledge that is presented. For example, when asked why one inverts and multiplies to divide fractions, a learner in this perspective might say, "Because my teacher told me to do it that way." In the subjective-knowing perspective, knowledge develops from one's own experience. The learner depends on what looks or feels right, rather than merely what an external source has said.

In the procedural-knowing perspective, the voice of reason emerges and the learner begins to evaluate the validity of arguments. Belenky and her colleagues identified a gender difference in this perspective: Men seem to favor logic, argumentation, and rigor to evaluate validity, or separate knowing (Perry 1970), whereas women are more likely to use conjecture and their own and others' experience and knowledge, or connected knowing. Authority comes from these shared experiences. In the constructed-knowing perspective, one integrates intuitive knowledge with that derived from experience and what others know. The learner appreciates the complexity of knowledge and the importance of context.

Classroom Applications

Although Women's Ways of Knowing was developed from extensive research with older learners, we can glean from this theory some important implications for teaching mathematics in the elementary grades. …

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