Victoria Birch - gender bias in education

Writer Victoria Birch shares her thoughts with 3P Learning about the gender myth in education.

Victoria Birch is a freelance writer and mother of two from Sydney.  She is passionate about learning, child psychology and following educational trends in both Australia and around the world.

“As a child I was hopeless at mathematics. I remember being frustrated with my inability to ‘get’ numbers. Words I knew. Words fell out of my head in well-structured, orderly sentences.  Calculations?  Algebra? They made my brain throb with confusion. I reasoned this lopsided intellect was down to my girl gene.  Girls seemed to be better at creative things: making nice words or music or art.  Boys were better at finding the exacting solutions demanded by mathematics and science.

Defining academic abilities along gender lines is nothing new.  Over time the idea that girls’ and boys’ brains are wired differently has taken hold in our collective subconscious. How else can we explain girls’ poor performance in mathematics (as a recent review of Australian exam results found)?  And what other reason explains boys’ struggle to read

well during the primary school years? Despite efforts to arrest these trends (like the campaign undertaken by Australian state governments in the 1990s to encourage more girls to study mathematics) gender still seems to determine academic success in certain fields.   The notion girls and boys have different learning strengths makes sense to us because we see these results, but are assumptions about innate ability accurate?

As an adult I undertook a degree course that included study of mathematical logic.   Opening the first pages of the unit text made me want to cry.  My perceived inability to ‘get’ mathematics was so deeply imbedded it took all my courage not give up.  As it turns out I passed the unit with a distinction.  It didn’t mean I was a mathematical genius by any stretch, but passing a tertiary level unit meant so much. It proved I understood mathematics, and that had nothing to do with overcoming my girl gene and everything to do with my brain’s natural ability to perform.

My experience is supported by academic research.   Utilising data taken from over 86 countries, a study undertaken by the University of Wisconsin in 2010 found that, “gender is not a strong predictor of mathematics performance” and further, there is convincing “evidence of gender similarities in mathematics performance.” In short, girls have as much mathematical brain power as the next boy.

On the other side of the gender divide boys too are burdened by assumptions about their capabilities, primarily that they cannot get to grips with literacy.  A report commissioned by the UK’s National Literacy Trust in July 2012 found there is a disparity between the reading performance of girls and boys.  76% of UK schools said boys, “did not do as well in reading as girls.”  However, this was unrelated to how boys’ brains function, “boys’ underachievement in literacy is not inevitable. It is not simply a result of biological differences…”

If there really is no difference between boys’ and girls’ potential to achieve in literacy and mathematics, what is driving performance outcomes?  In a nutshell, we are. Parents and educators who reinforce unsubstantiated notions of what children can’t do according to their gender. Both the Wisconsin and National Literacy studies found that parents who unwittingly reinforce stereotypical ideas about their children’s capabilities undermine their confidence and natural desire to pursue certain learning paths.

Parental influence can have a significant impact on girls’ and boys’ learning performance, but this also means it can be an agent for positive change. Ensuring both mum and dad help with mathematics homework, avoiding negative comments about our own learning experiences and making reading a part of everyday life for boys and girls are some of the ways we can ensure children don’t see gender as a learning barrier.

Ultimately, actively engaging with our children’s learning potential means we can foster a new generation that defines its achievements as individual and collective endeavour, not the inevitable by-product of gender.”

We’d like to know your thoughts. Can the gender bias in education be reversed? Who holds responsibility for changing?