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Myth busting: girls, boys, maths, confidence

19 February 2019

Large scale data shows girls can do mathematics and they can do it very well, according to ACER’s (Australian Council for Educational Research) Dr Sue Thomson. Yet so many women and girls lack confidence and belief in their ability to do maths and that can have long reaching effects on their confidence in later life, for example when it comes to financial matters.

When we consider this lack of confidence in light of the fact that household decision making is often financial, and that women are most often the household decision makers, our fear around maths and finances as women defies common sense.

Sue Thomson ACER

Sue Thomson (above) is the Deputy CEO (Research) at ACER and has a long history with mathematics, as well as research around gender and STEM subjects, and she agrees in principle that this lack of confidence goes onto play out in life when it comes to women’s financial engagement and confidence.

Sue believes the lack of confidence and belief in maths ability is rooted in traditions about who should be doing STEM subjects and what are appropriate careers for women. She also believes that science, technology, engineering and maths are not just for the “super brainy” and it’s important to dispel this myth.

All in all there’s a lot of negative energy surrounding STEM and girls and, according to Sue, changing the attitudes that reduce confidence and enjoyment levels for girls when it comes to doing STEM subjects is a priority. Her strategy: confront society with a picture that portrays the reality.

The reality is that large scale research evidence notes that “if mathematical, or scientific, or computer ability was biologically determined then gender differences would be consistent across countries and this is not the case.”

To support the data picture, the recent focus by NASA on its all-female crew is a positive turn of events, others include the stories of women working in research who can attest to the fact that these are jobs like any job, as well as showing positive examples of women led research programs, teams, businesses, and education departments.

“There are hundreds of ways we can switch the focus to women in STEM, and we must switch the focus if we are to make it easier for women to pursue STEM careers and bring the diversity to research, industry and business that is needed,” says Sue.

Ruby thinks we also need to pump up the part household decision makers (most often women) play in the economy and stress who they are, so that women can come to believe in their practical financial abilities.

After all, as the experts attest, you can only model what you can see.

 “You don’t have to have an ATAR [Australian Tertiary Admission Rank ] of 98 to work in these fields. These are jobs where regular hard work will bring success and enjoyment to those who want to apply themselves,” says Sue, who notes that boys, even in the lower math percentiles, portray greater confidence in their abilities than girls currently do.

To illustrate why diversity of thought and inclusion is so important, Sue tells me about an example in car design that she often quotes. It’s in seat belt design, where test crash dummies that are based on men actually prove dangerous for women.

There is no point scaling the dummy down to approximate a woman’s size because physiologically women are different to men and, importantly, women get pregnant. Testing safety measures without these physiological factors taken into consideration leaves women and pregnant women and the pregnancy open to much higher risks of injury and death.

Sue also notes that being the only woman on a committee comes with issues men need to understand: “I have been the only woman on committees and I always say, this has to change because I cannot and wouldn’t dream of speaking for all women.”

In the new age of technology in education there’s hope. Consider all those text books written by men with male oriented descriptions that just do not resonate with girls,especially when it comes to physics. New media users are challenging this gender imbalanced portrayal of physics. Scientists such as Toby Hendy, for example (a Westpac Future Leaders Scholar), and her EduTuber program Tibees is playing its part in presenting physics in a way that appeals to young women and achieves better gender balance.

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