In class, we talked about how women in mathematics often face bias, and their contributions in mathematics are often unrecognized. This discussion prompted me to reflect on my own experiences with facing bias in math class and also made me want to do some more research on gender bias in the classroom.
The following is some research I collected about gender bias in the classroom, from http://www.education.com/reference/article/gender-bias-in-teaching/:
Our bias against girls in school is often unintentional, as teachers often do not even realize they are projecting bias toward girls. A study on gender bias in the classroom done in 1987 (Tobin & Gallagher) found that the students who dominated the teacher’s time by asking and answering questions were primarily white and male. In the sciences, the study found that teachers also tend to ask boys harder and more complicated questions, as opposed to girls. Though such behaviors are unintentional, when teachers do this they are subliminally sending a false message that boys are smarter and more capable than girls when it comes to math and science.
The stigma that boys are better than girls in math is a stigma that I have faced personally during my journey as a math student. Many people that I meet appear surprised when they inquire about my major and I tell them that I am studying math. They just assume that I am studying Language Arts or Social Studies, because I am a woman and there are not very many female elementary math teachers.
As an elementary student, I really struggled in Math, but I told myself that it was okay because I am a girl and girls are not inherently good at math. If I continued to carry this mindset with me, I would not be the scholar and lover-of-math that I am today.
Gender Bias in History
There were many female mathematicians in the past who faced discrimination in the field of mathematics, just as I have as a student. One such mathematician was Mary Fairfax Greig Somerville, who lived from 1780-1832. Somerville grew up during a time when women weren’t allowed to be educated. She had two brothers who went to school, but her parents saw no need for her to be educated since she was a girl. As a young girl, the only education Somerville received was from her Mother, who taught her how to read, but did not teach her how to write. Later in her childhood, Somerville attended a boarding school for girls, but eventually left because she was unhappy and didn’t feel that she was getting a good education. Soon, she began to educate herself by reading any book she could get her hands on, but she was often ridiculed by her family members, who considered the act “unladylike” and felt that it was silly for a girl to be reading. Somerville developed a passion for mathematics through study of “Euclid’s Elements” and later published several books and papers about Math and Science. She became a supporter of Women’s Education and Women’s Suffrage, and is one of the greatest female Mathematicians in history.
Sommerville’s story is one I identify with both as a fellow woman and lover of math, as it shows the struggles many women had to overcome in the pursuit of their passion. Her story shows how strong women can be in the face of bias and adversity, and also exemplifies how important they really were in the history and development of Math.
A Message for Teachers
As teachers, we need to be more aware of these biases against women in Math and Science, and be mindful that we aren’t passing on the stigma that girls are not as smart as boys in these subjects. We need to be more mindful of what we say and do, of our body language, of how we group students, who we call on, the tasks we assign, and of the hundreds of other choices we must make in the classroom every day. It is our responsibility to empower all of our students to be successful no matter their gender, heritage, past experiences, or other backgrounds.