Where Are the Math Girls?

Jessica Shumway is the author of Number Sense Routines (Stenhouse, 2011). She’s worked as an elementary classroom teacher and a mathematics coach for teachers of grades PK-5 in Texas and Virginia and is currently a doctoral student at Utah State University.

In a recent blog post, Jessica raised concerns about evidence that fewer girls are pursuing mathematics and STEM studies than we might anticipate, a decade into the 21st century. We asked her about that issue, which certainly bears on teaching and learning in the middle grades. (Jessica also shared some references, which we’ve placed at the end of the interview.)

1. Where have all the math girls gone? You noted in a recent blog post that as you look into upper mathematics classrooms in high schools, you mostly see guys. Were there more girls in those classes in the 80s or 90s or early 2000s? Why then and not now? How did you become a math girl?

In the U.S., we have become more aware of and made progress toward encouraging more females to take upper-level mathematics and pursue STEM careers. Yet a great deal of work is ahead of us in closing the gender gap in math—both in participation and in performance.

One interesting article I recently read by Jennifer Hall points out that although there has been progress in closing the gender gap in mathematics fields, gender issues in mathematics have not been solved. As an elementary school mathematics teacher, I do not personally witness these issues at play in high schools, yet I do follow the research and trends in mathematics classrooms beyond elementary school (for example, see Kane & Mertz, 2012). I wonder: What is encouraging young women to pursue other fields? How much are they influenced by societal expectations? How much by lack of encouragement? Are there other content areas that end up being more interesting to them? And, why?

Some studies reported that lack of interest has been a factor in fewer female students signing up for advanced high school mathematics classes (for example, see Catsambis, 1994). Other studies found that attitudes towards mathematics play a major role in signing up for non-mandatory mathematics classes in high school (see Hall, 2012). What roles do teachers play in females’ attitudes toward and interest in math?

I took upper-level mathematics in high school, but did not love it enough to take it in college. My main purpose in taking upper-level math in high school was to pass the AP exams and get college credit so I could exempt college math courses. I didn’t hate math; in fact I enjoyed it a great deal. Yet I also didn’t find math as interesting as it truly can be, because I didn’t understand why all these formulas worked and how I was ever going to use calculus.

I came to love mathematics through teaching. During my second year of teaching in Round Rock, Texas, I attended a professional development that changed the way I thought about and taught mathematics to my second grade students. I began to listen to my students’ reasoning about math and came to understand more about their strategies, ideas, thinking processes, and misconceptions in solving math problems.

I also began to more fully grasp the deeper, conceptual aspects of mathematics myself and really grew to appreciate the beauty of the subject. I began to notice the critical role that “number sense” plays in students’ math success, as well as in how they view mathematics as a subject. Students with strong number sense tend to enjoy math more and perform at higher levels of achievement because the math makes sense!

2. What is it about today’s math classes that are attracting more boys than girls? What are girls choosing to take instead of math and science classes?

I asked these same questions in my blog post, and I wish I knew the answers to these questions! I’m sure that multiple factors impact math participation by girls and that participation varies by schools, districts, states, etc. Even a single teacher in a school can be the decisive factor by engaging students in interesting discussions about math, providing opportunities for students to discover and explore the beautiful and elegant aspects of our number system, sharing their own personal stories about math, and encouraging all students to take math and science classes beyond the required courses. When students feel success and find joy in math, they will be inspired to pursue the topics further.

3. You’ve said that “as an elementary mathematics teacher and coach, I have observed female students not only enjoying mathematics and science but also demonstrating aptitudes parallel to the male students and developing deep (and, I hope, lasting) interest in math and science.” Yet you also say that the statistics predict girls will lose interest by 9th grade. What needs to happen in grades K-8 to shift this pattern? And how much can schools and teachers do in the face of cultural patterns and pressures?

Building agency and making math accessible to all learners are two ways that K-8 schools and teachers can be forces that initiate a shift in this pattern.

Societal expectations play a major role in this pattern of girls losing interest in math by high school. Building children’s capacity, volition and desire to pursue math studies could possibly help shift this pattern. I love the way Peter Johnston writes about teachers’ roles in developing students’ agency around successful events: “It is our job to help expand the possible agentive narrative lines available for children to pick up” (2004, p. 40). Put another way – we need to give children opportunities to have successful experiences in math and provide a setting to allow them to view themselves as mathematicians. To develop agency, students need to try on the hat of mathematician!

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Building students’ agency involves helping students confront their beliefs and the community’s beliefs about themselves and what they are capable of doing. It means that educators, families, and communities must provide students with plentiful opportunities to try on various “hats” — for example, to try out engineering projects, start a school business, or invite architects and other professionals to speak to students about their daily work.

Students must be involved in projects that involve the application of mathematics. One’s identity is related to one’s interests and attitudes, so it’s important for girls and boys to try out being mathematicians and being scientists.

In addition to building agency, making mathematics accessible to ALL learners also has potential for shifting this pattern of girls losing interest in math during their secondary schooling. Math instruction that involves inquiry-based learning, classroom discussion, multiple opportunities to solve rich problems, and an emphasis on number sense and the underlying patterns and rhythms of mathematics are ways to not only reach more girls but reach all types of learners both female and male.

4. Where are the role models? How do teachers find grown-up Math Girls who are making major contributions to STEM professions and research?

There are many wonderful role models across the nation. My personal role models are the teachers and professors I work with day in and day out. Local STEM professionals (both female and male) could make enormous impacts on children in their community by getting involved in schools. I’m sure many are willing to be involved — we just need to ask them.

5. We see a lot of activity going on around girls and STEM careers. Do you think it will have any impact? What would you do if you were Secretary of Education, addressing this issue?

Definitely! The more opportunities girls (and all students for that matter) have to learn from community professionals, be involved in projects, and try on the “hat” of a STEM professional, the more likely they are to see themselves as potential STEM professionals and gain interest in the field.

If I were Secretary of Education, improving math and science instruction for ALL students would be a priority of the first order. I think the CCSS Standards for Mathematical Practice are a move in the right direction because they include a focus on the deeper, conceptual mathematics (e.g., “make sense of problems and persevere in solving them,” “model with mathematics,” and “look for and make use of structure”). These are the types of skills necessary for STEM fields.

Math instruction that focuses on understanding and making sense of math will move us away from the very boring, formulaic, traditional mathematics instruction that so many Americans fear and loathe.

Math instruction that focuses on understanding and making sense of math will move us away from the very boring, formulaic, traditional mathematics instruction that so many Americans fear and loathe. If we want to open the doors for many children, both male and female, let’s approach mathematics education with a focus on number sense, reasoning, problem solving, classroom discussions, and project-based applications.

I think if I were making decisions about curriculum spending priorities, I would invest in professional development, particularly in campus-based models that involve coaching or other forms of embedded professional learning that constantly model the best math instruction.


Catsambis, S. 1994. “The Path to Math: Gender and Racial-Ethnic Differences in Mathematics Participation from Middle School to High School.” Sociology of Education 67(3): 199-215

Hall, J. 2012. “Gender Issues in Mathematics: An Ontario Perspective.” Journal of Teaching and Learning 8(1): 59-72 Download here.

Kane, J. M., and J. E. Mertz. 2012. “Debunking Myths about Gender and Mathematics Performance.” Notices of the American Mathematical Society 59(1): 10–21 News summary

Common Core State Standards Initiative. 2010. Common core state standards for mathematics. Retrieved from http://www.corestandards.org Download CCSS math standards

Johnston, P. H. 2004. Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning. Portland, ME: Stenhouse. View book information.

John Norton

John Croft Norton is an education writer and editor. He's the founder and co-editor of MiddleWeb. John also co-founded the national Teacher Leaders Network and enjoys developing and supporting virtual communities of educators and promoting teacher voices. He lives in Little Switzerland NC, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, and once lived in Atlanta, where he was vice president for information at the Southern Regional Education Board.

1 Response

  1. John Norton says:

    Here’s one math girl we found: Top 10 Reasons Why I Love Math. Meena Boppana, HS ’12, spent six weeks this past summer at the Research Science Institute at MIT, where she gathered with 80 of the top high school science students from around the world and worked on an unsolved problem in a field of math called combinatorics. She was invited to participate in the USA Math Olympiad in 2010 and is captain of the Hunter Senior math team. Meena founded a math club at the charter school Girls Prep Middle School.

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