Women and maths - how it all starts to add up

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The Independent Online
A new course from the Open University is breaking down the traditional prejudices that have left maths and physics as virtual no-go areas for women. Maureen O'Connor reports on a discipline where the answers can no longer be taken for granted.

"I had a dreadful experience with maths at school. I didn't understand, and everything seemed to be geared to those who learned quickly. I tended to blame myself, but now I realise it was down to the teachers."

Liz Buckingham's experience of maths at school is not unusual. What is different is that this Devon coach-driver has overcome her early disadvantage and starts an Open University degree course in chemistry this term. She got there after taking a new Open University foundation course in maths that tackles an ongoing problem in higher education: how do you persuade more people to study mathematics, or subjects involving mathematics, in higher education when so many of them, and particularly women, have not succeeded at school?

In spite of all the hype about girls' performance outstripping boys', significant problems remain in maths and the physical sciences. Girls may do well at GCSE - although they do not get as many of the top grades in maths as boys do - but then there is a significant falling away. Fewer take A-level maths, therefore fewer go on to degree courses in maths and related subjects, and even fewer pursue the subject at postgraduate level and as teachers in higher education.

Others are disadvantaged because many non-mathematical degree courses, in the social as well as the physical sciences, also demand a basic competence in the subject. And, according to Rosanne Benn, of Exeter University, who runs access courses for women returners, many women avoid jobs with any mathematical content because of their unhappy experiences at school. For those like Liz Buckingham, who were turned off and disillusioned, a great many doors remain closed unless they can get to grips with maths later on.

Maths courses in higher education are not quite the no-go area for women they used to be, but the figures speak for themselves: fewer than 5,000 out of almost 13,000 maths undergraduates are female, and their percentage of first-class degrees is lower. At postgraduate level men outnumber women two-to-one on taught courses, and by three-to-one in research. Inevitably the teaching force is dominated by men; the number of women is creeping up, but only 3 per cent of maths professors are female (compared with 8.4 per cent in the academic world as a whole); 6.2 per cent of senior lecturers are women (cf 16.8 per cent overall); and the proportion of female maths lecturers has reached 17.2 per cent, only half the proportion in all subjects.

So if women are getting on to equal terms with men in other academic areas, what is going wrong with maths? Academics, almost without exception, blame the schools, although their complaints lead in two diametrically opposed directions. Most agree that school maths teaching has changed up to GCSE level, and that introducing problem-solving and collaborative work, with more emphasis on coursework and less on competitive examinations, has made the subject more "girl-friendly" at that level.

Beyond that, there is dispute. Tony Gardiner, president of the Mathematical Association, says we must accept that this approach has made the subject "more woolly", and the gulf between GCSE and A-level much wider. This gulf, he concedes, may explain why girls are dropping out at that point. But he opposes change in syllabuses and approaches at the higher levels. Maths, he says, will always leave some people cold, however good the teaching.

"You can change the syllabuses higher up, but ultimately that will put us out of joint with the rest of the world and make British maths graduates unemployable in Europe. You can't get rid of this difficulty. Maths is a black-and-white subject. If you make A-level `softer' you will end up with an impossible problem at 18."

This view is opposed by many people working in higher education, including those who helped devise and monitor the Open University course MU120 which proved so effective for Liz Buckingham. Dr Christine Atkinson, of the Gender and Maths Association, argues that courses such as MU120, which attracted equal numbers of men and women, indicate that a different approach to teaching can work without loss of rigour.

"There are two points here," she says. "First, the subject itself is changing. With chaos theory there are no longer right and wrong answers to all mathematical problems. But quite apart from that, there is room for the sort of collaborative and creative approaches to maths which women seem to find more appealing."

One of the great successes of the MU120 course, she thinks, was that it provided a graphic calculator, which is effectively a small computer, for all students. Feedback showed that 63 per cent of students felt they had made most progress on the parts of the course where the calculator was used. "The great thing is that you can see what you are doing; you can see a graph going off to infinity. Information technology lifts the lid off maths for some people."

All mathematical ideas on the course were introduced in context, from everyday areas such as prices, earnings and health; algebraic and geometric ideas were introduced via maps, art and architecture; mathematical functions and regression modelling were taught by, among other things, baking cakes. The residential school was replaced with more group work in tutorials, and the end-of-course exam was replaced with an assignment.

Leone Burton, professor of maths and science education at Birmingham University, thinks that the shortfall of women in maths in higher education is not simply the fault of the schools, in any case. She has found from her research that university maths departments have been extremely competitive, judgemental and traditional in their approach. The more female-friendly approaches which have improved girls' performance at GCSE are not countenanced higher up the ladder, and some young women mathematicians complain of marginalisation and harassment in male-dominated departments.

But is "rigour" dependent on a traditional approach, as Tony Gardiner suggests? Rosanne Benn, of Exeter University, who has a first-class degree in maths, argues from her experience that the didactic and structured way in which maths is taught does not make sense to women, but this does not mean that they cannot do maths successfully.

"User-friendly maths, by which I mean maths which is humanised and put in a real-world context, is not easier maths or less demanding. Maths does not appear out of the clear blue sky. It has social dimensions. Calculus was invented to solve real-life navigational problems. If half of the population are underperforming in maths and some of them are frankly terrified of the subject, then I think we have to look at the way it is taught at all levels."