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Maths Is A Unique Subject
Maths is binary, generally, you are either right or wrong. You fail every single day in maths and that’s hard to grapple with. It’s not like a language subject where you have the time to use your creativity and cultivate your answers. Failing is an essential part of learning and teaches us how to be flexible, adapt, and to overcome obstacles.
I believe girls downplay their abilities and achievements more than boys. This is known as a lower “self-concept”. The main reason girls have a lower self-concept for maths is due to how their parents, teachers, peers and the media speak about girls and maths. We all need to change the conversation and to improve our relationship with maths.
We often hear mothers say they were never good at maths, that it’s the dad who helps the kids with Maths. Is this leading to the stereotype that Maths comes easier to boys than girls?
Does society think girls are bad at Maths? A US survey showed 91% of women believe men are better investors, despite women outperforming men by 0.4% every year. This, I feel, goes back to the historical barriers preventing girls from getting the same education as boys. Thankfully, the barriers have been removed but the false stereotypes remain. In Ireland, the standards improved for girls throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. There was still a barrier as late as 1985 with the primary school curriculum allowing for “separate arrangements in movement training” for boys and girls. This allowed boys to learn skills and techniques, while girls learned style and grace.
Trinity College Dublin didn’t allow women to attend until 1904 despite opening in 1592. Cambridge did not award degrees to women until 1948 despite opening in 1209. Even more recently, Ecole Polytechnique, one of France’s most prestigious institutes, only started admitting women in 1972.
Even after opening universities to women, there were still few women earning Maths degrees. In the 1960s and 1970s, there were only around 30 women in Ireland with Bachelor’s Degrees in Maths. Today there are thousands. For much of the 20th century women weren’t allowed to work in Ireland and be married. In 1937, Margaret MacDonnell, who had a Masters in Maths, was fired from her job as a professor after her marriage. Even as recently as 1977, women working in banks or for the civil service were legally forbidden from keeping their jobs if they got married. No wonder the number of women with Bachelor’s Degrees in Maths was so low. Why would someone go to university if they wouldn’t be allowed to get a job afterwards?
Enthusiastic female maths teachers can have a massive influence on young girls’ learning but imagine if Einstein was a girl? There are few female Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) role models. The great STEM leaders and visionaries were male; Einstein, the Wright brothers, Leonardo da Vinci, George Boole, and Oppenheimer. Today’s biggest tech companies were founded by men, just look at Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook. Boys and girls grow up learning and reading about male success in STEM and it becomes the expectation that boys are made to build the world around us.
Maths is all around us but it is never too late to improve your skills. The vast majority of adults have the ability, they just need to rise above the anxiety and give it a go. It’s important too that we change the conversation around Maths and stop downplaying our ability in the subject, you never know if the next female Einstein could be listening.
‘Girls in STEM’ refers to young female students exploring Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), aligning with the broader goal of increasing female representation in these fields, similar to the ‘Women in STEM’ initiative. This term is used to encourage and support girls in pursuing interests and education in STEM fields from an early age, aiming to challenge traditional gender roles and promote diversity and inclusivity in these crucial and evolving sectors.
Maths is central to STEM as it forms the foundational basis for understanding and advancing in other STEM disciplines. For girls in STEM, gaining proficiency in mathematics fosters critical skills like problem-solving and logical reasoning. Moreover, engaging with mathematics helps challenge and break down gender stereotypes often associated with STEM fields. Encouraging girls to delve into mathematics is a step towards promoting a diverse, innovative, and equitable future workforce within STEM, echoing the overarching goals of the broader ‘Women in STEM’ narrative.
STEM is an acronym representing four interconnected fields:
- Science: The exploration of the natural world, encompassing disciplines such as biology, chemistry, physics, and earth science.
- Technology: The application of knowledge to create tools, systems, and processes that extend human capabilities and solve real-world problems.
- Engineering: The discipline of designing, building, and maintaining structures, machines, and systems through the application of scientific principles.
- Mathematics: The abstract study of numbers, quantities, shapes, and patterns, which forms the bedrock for logic and problem-solving in various contexts.
STEM embodies a collection of knowledge and skills crucial for navigating and solving contemporary challenges. It is a driving force behind innovation, economic development, and human progress. The interdisciplinary nature of STEM education equips individuals with a versatile skill set, preparing them for a broad spectrum of careers in sectors like healthcare, information technology, aerospace, automotive, and environmental conservation, among others. Moreover, STEM education cultivates critical thinking, problem-solving abilities, and the practical application of knowledge, rendering valuable competencies for success in numerous professional realms.