Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin: No wonder girls are anxious about maths

Mathematical anxiety is more common in girls, and societal messages are a big part of the problem

Photograph: iStock

Photograph: iStock


Last month research was published that reiterated that girls, despite performing well in maths exams, are more anxious about their abilities in the subject than boys. This should come as no surprise given that a number of studies since the 1980s have found that girls perceive their maths ability differently to their male counterparts. A question may now arise as to what we can learn from this research in an Irish context.

The study in question was based on Programme for International Student Assessment statistics from 2003 and 2012. Every three years the OECD conducts a series of assessments in mathematical, scientific and language literacy with 15-year-old students from all over the world. The mathematical literacy assessment incorporates students’ abilities to solve maths problems and records their opinions of the subject. Researchers from universities in Glasgow, California and Missouri found that in more than 80 per cent of the countries that took part in these assessments, the girls were more anxious about maths than the boys. Interestingly, while girls did not perform as well in their maths problems, the difference was not as stark.

Mathematical anxiety refers to the negative reactions that many people experience when placed in situations where they have to solve a maths problem. Maths education researchers have suggested that the anxiety prevalent in girls is due, in part, to inherent societal messages about gender and ability. Messages that girls are less able to be successful in maths have seeped into the psyche of society . For example, until 1968 in Ireland we had a maths exam “for girls only” based on arithmetic exercises for cooking and household chores. Although these are worthy topics, the exam carried an underlying message that Irish girls were less capable of performing “more complicated” mathematical calculations than boys. More recently, it has horrified me to see clothing for young girls emblazoned with statements such as “too pretty for maths” on sale in large chain stores.

Unfortunately, stereotypical messages seem to prevail even at undergraduate level. Studies from the UK have found that on entering third-level maths-based courses, and without any explicit gender bias in lectures, tutorials or lab classes, girls perceive themselves as having less flair in the subject than their male peers and feel excluded from the maths community.

Definitive link

There is a definitive link between mathematical anxiety, success in mathematical assessments and the willingness to continue studying maths.

Encouraging more young women to believe in their ability and to continue studying maths is fundamental to fostering our research fields in science, technology, engineering, and in maths and in developing our everyday national numeracy.

So, what can be done about it?

First of all, we should reconsider how we talk about maths. As a nation, we have no qualms in announcing “I was never any good at maths” or “maths is not my thing”, but would rarely admit to not being able to appreciate a poem, a novel or an article. We are quick to deny ever enjoying, let alone understanding, maths and regard it as a difficult, inaccessible subject that is only for an elite, intelligent (perhaps male) few to understand. Instead, we should begin to talk positively about maths and celebrate our national history as mathematicians.

Furthermore, how we discuss maths at home has a major impact on our young people’s perceptions of their ability. Although it may seem caring to say “Don’t mind if you can’t do that homework, I was never good at maths either”, this message communicates to the child that maths is a subject they can never possibly excel in. If there is a difficulty, it’s important to try a few strategies: use the internet as a resource and communicate the specific problem back to the teacher. Perseverance and a focus on the process of finding an answer – as opposed to just writing an answer down – is the key.

Returning to research on mathematical anxiety, there is no evidence that girls have any less ability in maths. We should be cognisant of the implicit messages we portray about the subject and encourage all of our young learners to enjoy the subject. We have a rich heritage of mathematics in Ireland, and we should celebrate it as we do our literary and musical figures.

  • Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin is a lecturer at UCD’s school of mathematics and statistics
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