Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE shares her thoughts on the crossover between gender and maths anxiety and the impact on wider society, as part of Pearson’s Power of Maths Spotlight series.
Is gender important in maths anxiety?
Gender considerations do not feature as much as they should in conversations about maths anxiety. We overlook it in so many areas.
Maths anxiety arises from thoughts such as “This is going to be super important” and “Will I even pass this?”. It also stems from beliefs like “I’m not as smart as everyone else seems to be” and “People like me don’t understand this”.
These beliefs significantly affect girls and non-binary individuals. Boys on the other hand often receive subtle reinforcement that says “Someone like you (i.e. a male) can handle this.”
In wider society, the idea that girls and non-binary students ‘don’t belong’ in maths in reinforced across many educational settings; in lessons, textbooks, the curriculum, and in what we set as norms and standards.
Although progress is being made through more inclusive wall displays and the presence of diverse role models in the maths curriculum, there is still more that can be done. The stories teachers share during lessons can play a significant role in connecting every learner with maths topics and is an easy change to make.
For instance, share the story of Gladys West and how she utilised GPS and trigonometry so we can know where we’re going at any given point, and where we are on the surface of the earth even when we don’t have phone signal.
Even if it’s just one bonus story a term, these things add up over the course of a learner’s journey through maths at school. We need to show learners that maths is more than dead white men with beards who sit in bathtubs – it’s not all about Newton and Archimedes!
We need to show learners that maths is more than dead white men with beards who sit in bathtubs – it’s not all about Newton and Archimedes!
Why does wider society have a problem with maths?
Anxiety, imposter syndrome, and lack of confidence in maths are not inherent traits but rather products of systemic and environmental factors.
As mathematicians, as educators, and also as a society, we have to take a broader view of what maths encompasses. Everyone – even adults – should be encouraged to see the subject as a fulfilling life-long journey that continues outside school.
Maths is everywhere! It is there when we look at our payslips, go to the sales, think about our savings and pensions, and so much more.
We also need to recognise the value of maths teachers. We can change the curriculum all we want but if we don’t have anyone wanting to teach it, then what is the point? It’s crucial to respect and support our teachers so that they can continue their valuable work, ensuring that we address maths anxiety in wider society effectively rather than being constantly caught in a cycle of chasing after it.
At the same time, we need to cut down on the elitism that has been built into the system. The idea of maths excellence comes up again and again – but maths excellence is not as broad as it should be, or needs to be.
In our communities, we need to adopt a more inclusive approach when discussing maths.
How can we support girls with their maths anxiety?
When we talk about wanting to support girls with their maths anxiety, actually that’s not for all girls. Girls are not a monolith. Some of the things we can do affect some of the girls, some boys, some non-binary folk. We can capture even more students’ interest, and lessen any anxieties, by realising that maths is a lens. It’s a tool.
Schools that want to close the gap can make the space to genuinely understand, tap into and give room for the assets that young people want to bring in. What is it that your female learners are interested in? If it’s their favourite influencer or celebrity, then perhaps they can be inspired by analysing the maths behind a social media account, for example.
Another option is to find time for a special maths lesson every now and again where learners can create, explore or solve a broader problem with maths. This could span investigating the numbers behind the cost-of-living crisis or looking at climate change issues. The key thing is to find something that’s meaningful to them in their lives.
You’ll be surprised at how far they take it, and these lessons will cut across the curriculum too.
When we talk about wanting to support girls with their maths anxiety, actually that’s not for all girls. Girls are not a monolith. Some of the things we can do affect some of the girls, some boys, some non-binary folk.
What should schools and educators be focusing on?
Instead of focusing on what learners don’t know, we should reinforce and emphasise what they do know. By going through topics collaboratively and working as a cohort - rather than encouraging solo learning all the time - students can feel empowered and recognise when they get things right.
It can make a big difference to make the process of sharing their knowledge part of the norm in lessons, allowing learners to practice and reduce their anxiety on a smaller scale. That way, when faced with bigger challenges such as exams, learners will feel more confident and resilient.
The idea shouldn’t be that students have to love maths and excel in every aspect of it. It’s totally normal for learners to have bits of maths that they struggle with or dislike, but that is very rarely presented as acceptable. Even for me, as much as I love maths overall, I hate circle theorems and analysis!
Instead people say things like “Maths builds upon itself”, and “if you miss one day, then you won’t ever catch up.” It’s just not true!
There’s such a breadth and range in the maths curriculum and an even broader range outside it. I think a lot of maths anxiety comes from believing that there is a single point of failure. But everyone is different. They learn differently. Students don’t have to build step-by-step necessarily; some will do better by looking back and understand concepts afterwards.
We don’t have these issues for music, for example. You don’t hear people saying “I don’t listen to music because of my experience in music lessons at school” and yet many people say “I hate maths”. What they are really saying is “I hated quite a lot of my maths lessons” and these perceptions need to shift.
I think a lot of maths anxiety comes from believing that there is a single point of failure. But everyone is different. They learn differently
The final word…
By tackling maths anxiety, and closing the gaps between genders, the future will look better for everyone.
If we’re not careful we will bring on a robo-apocalypse where our grandchildren end up marrying the robots because we didn’t ask the right questions... I’m joking but it’s a serious point. When people stay fearful of maths they generally don’t ask questions about related topics that matter.
So many things go unchallenged when people collectively say “I don’t get the maths”. We lose our agency in a world that’s becoming incredibly technical; where life is more complicated than maths.
For me, not understanding maths is the reason to ask the questions so that we can understand, work out how we can improve the status quo and move things forward.
Teacher tips for closing the gender gap in maths anxiety
- Look for class resources that present influential female and non-binary role models. For example, the Stemillions activities packs can help learners find out about a diverse range of STEAM role models and their careers, as well as providing fun, hands-on activities
- Share at least one real-life story about a mathematician who is lesser-known to students every term
- Position real life examples in society of individuals in careers that use maths for example, check out Pearson’s Your Future in Maths series
- Empower students by reinforcing what they do know, and getting them used to sharing with the class
- Go through topics as a cohort, working together
- Find opportunities to incorporate what students are genuinely interested in to your lessons – e.g. social media, climate change, coding
- Communicate the message regularly that learning maths is a life-long journey
- Allow learners to move on to new topics when needed, recognising that not everyone learns in a linear step-by-step way
- Let them know: it’s OK not to like certain topics. Maths is so much broader, accessible and relatable than it is perceived to be!
Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE was the youngest ever girl to pass A-level computing, aged just 11 years old. In 2013 she co-founded Stemettes, which aims to engage, inform and connect the next generation of women and non-binary people into Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths (STEAM) by showcasing a diversity of people working in STEAM.
Her latest book, She’s in CTRL, is out now.
Pearson’s Power of Maths campaign works to ensure that everyone can engage with maths and what it can do. Whether it's tackling issues facing maths education or promoting maths positivity, we're focused on working alongside leading thinkers and organisations to help build a number-confident nation.
Read our Guide to Tackling Maths Anxiety full of practical tips, guidance and reflections for every age and stage and our quick read highlighting some key tools to support maths-anxious learners.
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