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Mathematics Has No Gender

Girls and Mathematics. A Report by the Joint Mathematical Education Committee of the Royal Society and the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, the Royal Society, London, 1986. 37 pp. £3. It is heartening that girls' needs have been accorded recognition and status through the publication of a report such as this by the Royal Society. Several important themes are brought to light: there is ample evidence of girls' and womens' underachievement and under-representation in mathematics

By | January 12, 1987

Girls and Mathematics. A Report by the Joint Mathematical Education Committee of the Royal Society and the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, the Royal Society, London, 1986. 37 pp. £3.

It is heartening that girls' needs have been accorded recognition and status through the publication of a report such as this by the Royal Society. Several important themes are brought to light: there is ample evidence of girls' and womens' underachievement and under-representation in mathematics; there is no persuasive evidence that this can be accounted for adequately by innate or genetic disability in females; and, the evidence—statistical, anecdotal and attitudinal—points to a range of educational and social factors that may be causative and are certainly influential.

In the United Kingdom, mathematics is compulsory for virtually all pupils up to the age of 16. There is, nonetheless, a substantial discrepancy between the performances of girls and boys, a difference that increases both with age and level of attainment. This trend is paralleled by girls' deteriorating attitudes and is then reflected in the proportion of women and men graduating and taking up professional careers in mathematics. One particularly stark statistic is the ratio of the fellows of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications in 1985—1,199 men and 33 women.

Statistics such as this point to a pressing need to change the social and educational climate in which girls learn mathematics. The similarities between the United Kingdom and the United States with respect to this problem are far greater than any apparent differences—the level of mathematics needed for entry to many higher education courses and careers is not attained in either country.

The report's recommendations, which are relevant to both countries, are addressed to the many groups able to influence the mathematical learning experiences of girls and women. Each group is offered its own set of recommendations. These include emphasizing women role models, ensuring that teaching materials and examination questions are non-sexist, implementing equal opportunity policies at all levels, and encouraging girls to develop problem-solving skills and be adventurous from an early age.

One weakness in the report is that it does not adequately draw attention to the fact that mathematics is learned in situations and contexts other than those labeled "mathematics." For example, research which, the report says, indicates that girls who succeed in mathematics are likely to have more of the interests and traits associated with males than other girls is referred to in a paragraph dealing with the detrimental effects on girls' learning of the masculine image of mathematics. This research showed a high correlation (for both girls and boys) between studying physics or technical drawing and success in mathematics at a particular 0-level examination (taken by the top 20 percent of those 16 and older). The explanatory hypothesis I find most convincing—that people who study those subjects are also practicing their mathematical skills—is not put forward.

This otherwise sound and thoughtful document offers practical and concrete suggestions for improving the mathematics education of girls. It is based on a careful evaluation of available information and deserves wide dissemination.

Isaacson is in the Department of Teaching Studies at the Polytechnic of North London.


And Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace, Proves the Point

The Royal Society report recommends that attention be drawn to women mathematicians and women who "use and enjoy" mathematics. Ada Byron—daughter of Lord Byron and wife of William King, Earl of Lovelace—was one such woman, and although her contributions were made more than a century ago, she has only recently gained recognition in this field. In 1980, nearly 130 years after her death, the U.S. Department of Defense named its new programming language "Ada." The following excerpt is from a new biography, The Calculating Passion of Ada Byron by Joan Baum (The Shoe String Press, Hamden, CT, 1986. 172 pp., illus, $21.50).

Recognition came late. For one hundred years after her death there was silence, and then, in 1952, tribute in a book on the history of computing. And now, only in the last few years there has been a rush of information books, articles, excerpts from her letters, with more on the way. Here was a remarkable lady, overlooked in the history of science, a Victorian woman working presciently in a man's field. And here was what she did over the course of a few months in 1843: She not only wrote "Notes," which envisioned and explained a "program" for [Charles] Babbage's Analytical Engine and were the first sophisticated sequence of coded instructions ever written for such a mechanism; she also anticipated computer developments such as artificial intelligence and computer music.

She had also dared to dream, to imagine what computers might do with their power to repeat and loop and change course in mid-stream. And she had exercised her imagination when time and place were against her, when women were excluded from the halls of learning and generally dissuaded from pursuing subjects like mathematics, even in the drawing rooms.

At a crucial time in her life Ada Lovelace felt, and acted on, a "power" and a "passion" to go far in mathematical pursuits. That she even entertained such notions was unusual; that she went as far as she did—studying continually, corresponding with leading mathematicians, and publishing a commentary in the leading science journal of the time—could be regarded as radical. But Ada Lovelace did not soar against the prevailing winds of Victorian society. It was childhood conditioning—and inheritance—that moved her, not social rebellion. For Ada, the daughter of a lady very much used to getting her own way, doors to study could be opened.



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