In Russian high school, only boys seem to favour mathematics, while their female classmates tend to progressively lose interest in formulas and calculations and rarely associate their future with mathematics.
This gender imbalance may provoke sexist arguments of the kind that women do not have the brains for maths. However, nothing could be further from the truth, given the great number of female mathematicians in history, such as Hypatia of Alexandria in ancient Greece, Sophie Germain and Nicole Lepaute in France, poet Byron's daughter Augusta Ada Lovelace in England and Sofia Kovalevskaya in Russia — and this is counting only 'pure' mathematicians, not even those involved in related disciplines
According to studies, the unpopularity of mathematics among girls is mainly caused by stereotypes depicting this discipline as boring and too complicated. In addition to this, schoolteachers are not always good at inspiring student interest in pure sciences.
According to Kuzmina, by the time they finish school, many young girls are not only uninterested in mathematics, but tend to underestimate its social importance — a powerful factor in the choice of career for young women (but not so for young men). As a result, Russian women mathematicians are few and far between, says Kuzmina in her paper 'Gender differences in the dynamics of mathematics self-concept and motivation' presented at the HSE international conference 'Trajectories and Educational Choice'.
Kuzmina examined how boys' and girls' interest in mathematics changes as they progress from grades eight to nine of secondary school. Young people at this age start thinking seriously about their future careers.
According to a survey of teachers, many of them try to explain to students that mathematics can be relevant to their adult lives. But their arguments seem to sound more convincing to boys than to girls. Female students are more likely to wonder why working hard to succeed in certain subjects is worth it and what may be the long-term pay-off, Kuzmina notes. This kind of instrumental (extrinsic) motivation appears to affect the performance in mathematics for girls, but not for boys, the researcher has found.
But there is more to it than that. Girls generally tend to work harder at school, because they seem to be more sensitive to approval, according to a number of studies.
Ironically, this desire for approval can ultimately discourage girls from studying mathematics — a subject seen by many people in Russian society as 'less useful' than e.g. medicine, education, chemistry or biology. Young girls tend to adopt such attitudes and avoid careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).
The survey shows that those female students who recognise the usefulness of mathematics are "more likely to say that they would like to have a career in STEM," according to Kuzmina. Generally, she found instrumental motivation for studying mathematics to be lower in girls compared to boys.
But choosing mathematics for a career requires more than mere recognition of its importance. One also needs the so-called intrinsic motivation for studying it. Yet for some reason or other, such as other interests, complexity of assignments, unhelpful teachers or just being tired of school (let alone dating and romance), boys and girls who used to show about the same level of interest in mathematics in grade eight, differ dramatically by grade nine, with most girls turning away from this subject and lacking both instrumental and intrinsic motivation for studying it. In addition to this, starting from grade eight, female students tend to underestimate their mathematic abilities compared to male peers, and it also affects girls' career choices.
According to Rosstat, the proportion of women graduates in physics and mathematics stands at about 20% and a similar situation is observed in IT. In contrast, up to 60% of biology and chemistry undergraduates are women.
Even those women who earn a degree in STEM are far less likely to stay in and have a career in mathematics, physics and engineering, as opposed to biology and chemistry. This gender gap is typical for many countries.
Perhaps these findings could inspire teachers and curriculum designers to think of new approaches to helping students of both genders appreciate mathematics.
This paper is based on the longitudinal study Trajectories in Education and Careers and the findings from TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) and PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) surveys, both involving the same students: 4,636 eight-graders in TIMSS in 2011 and 2,927 ninth-graders in PISA in 2012.