Last month one of the government’s unelected advisers – the social mobility commission chair Katharine Birbalsingh – warned that girls were not taking physics at A-level because they dislike “hard maths”. Her comments were widely rejected at the time (including by me) as unevidenced and outdated.
Now, in a battle that has been dubbed “Tsar Wars”, another of the government’s advisers – children’s commissioner for England Rachel de Souza – has also denounced Birbalsingh’s claim. Speaking at a conference in Birmingham, de Souza said to school leaders: “I just want to tell you that in my view, girls like hard maths.”
She went on to highlight the importance of female role models in Stem (science, technology engineering and mathematics) subjects. Her view was informed by speaking to girls in her “Big Ask” survey of children post-pandemic. In contrast, when Birbalsingh was asked to back up her assertions about girls disliking hard maths, she could only cite the nebulous “research generally”.
Is there a problem with girls taking maths? What do the stats say? The figures suggest that 39 per cent of pupils taking maths at A-level are female. For the double maths A-level (maths and further maths) this falls to 29 per cent. For physics, it is only 23 per cent. There clearly is a difference here.
Whether you think it is a problem or not depends on your point of view. In an interview with Good Morning Britain, Birbalsingh suggested: “It’s wrong to have 50 per cent girls in all subjects and 50 per cent boys.” Of course, no one would expect the percentages to work out exactly 50-50 in every subject, but when we see a consistent systematic bias we should, at the very least, be asking ourselves what’s behind it.
Unless you genuinely buy into the controversial and unevidenced theory of “gender personality types” or believe that sex-based brain differences – unsupported by scientific consensus – are responsible for the differences in representation, then what else is there?
The answer seems to be that we are living in a society that is implicitly (or worse, explicitly) giving girls the message that they are not as good as boys in these subjects and that they would be better suited to doing something else. Surely this is not the sort of society we should be happy to bring our children up in – where their opportunities are limited by their gender?
De Souza’s insight – suggesting representation is a significant issue – is partly true, but probably doesn’t explain the whole of the discrepancy in the uptake of maths and physics by girls nationally. Societal expectations around gender play a crucial role, but role models are just one part of that jigsaw.
Another piece is the attitudes of those who are raising and mentoring girls in the UK. If you have never been encouraged to do maths, or you’ve been told that you will not excel at maths by your teachers or your parents (based on their own ingrained prejudices), then it reduces your chances of success in the field and ultimately your likelihood of wanting to choose those subjects.
Enjoyment is another factor when pupils come to choosing subjects to study at A-level. Girls apparently report enjoying maths less than boys do. Again though, we must try to trace back to the root cause of this difference. Could it really be something biological which makes girls find maths less fun than boys? Societal impact seems a much more likely explanation.
Another often neglected factor is the fact that girls’ overall performance outstrips that of boys. Evidence suggests that students are far more likely to continue with mathematics to A-level if the grade they get in their GCSE maths is their highest grade overall. Last year, girls did better than boys in every single subject at both GCSE and A-level. This includes maths, although the gap is narrower here than in some other subjects. Girls are therefore less likely to have achieved their top grade in maths in comparison to boys, making them relatively less likely to continue.
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After I wrote my last piece criticising Birbalsingh’s outmoded views on girls in Stem, a GCSE maths student wrote to me to thank me. In her email, she shared with me that “it is disheartening to see so many people make sweeping generalisations and assumptions about the subject that are simply not true” but that “reading your article was a refreshing antidote to the ridiculous stereotypes of ‘girls don’t like maths’”.
It re-emphasised to me the importance of continuing to have these conversations with each other. We need to keep reinforcing the idea that maths, and Stem subjects more generally, belong to everyone. We need to highlight female role models and tackle the root cause of girls’ underrepresentation in maths and physics. If we don’t, then we may miss out on the next generation of talented mathematicians – the next Johnsons, Germains and Lovelaces, the future Jacksons and Noethers, the upcoming Somervilles and Mirzakhanis.
Kit Yates is a senior lecturer in the Department of Mathematical Sciences and codirector of the Centre for Mathematical Biology at the University of Bath