Lowther women demonstrate for us how girls can occupy all sorts of spaces and flourish. With their wisdom, their life experiences, their mistakes and their recoveries, they provide a launching pad for our students so that they can have the confidence to continue to pursue their goals, challenge injustice and ultimately strive to make the world a better place through their contributions. The Lowther Women Luncheon event that was held yesterday is a celebration of this enormous contribution women make to the fabric of our School.
Over 200 women from the school community attended the event at Moonee Valley Racecourse, including current and past parents, Old Grammarians, current students, Foundation and Earlsbrae Circle members, past and present School Council members as well as friends of the School. The theme of the event followed the International Women’s Day theme, #BreakTheBias, with a specific focus on the bias for girls and women in mathematics. We heard thought-provoking discussion and experiences from our panel (facilitated by Ms Tracy Healy, Deputy Principal, Head of Senior School). They were:
- Ms Linda Shardlow, Mathematics Consultant at Lowther Hall
- Yanan Chai, Year 12 Mathematics Co-Captain
- Ms Alice Clark, Old Grammarian Class of 2012, Engineering
- Ms Sophie Goodman, Old Grammarian Class of 2011, Construction
- Marcella Lochert, Year 12 Mathematics Co-Captain
Ms Elisabeth Rhodes
Please see below the Provocation made by Ms Linda Shardlow, at the event:
"What are the biases associated with the education of girls in mathematics, why is there a need to break them and how do we do so? Let’s start with aspects of education that can block girls’ participation and success in mathematics.
A 2015 study found:
- Employers have a bias against hiring women for roles that require mathematical tasks
- In mixed gender classes, some teachers assumed boys were better at mathematics and marked test papers differently if the student’s gender was known
- Many adults’ fears and anxieties transpose themselves onto children within their ‘sphere of influence’
An international study on mathematics anxiety involving over 1 million students that came out in February of this year found that:
- Mathematics Anxiety was a common disorder
- Teacher confidence in teaching mathematics was a key preventer
- Cultural context was a significant factor
- Parental involvement with homework was a key enabler of anxiety. Students who learn how to deal with challenge on their own attribute success to their own efforts.
Why should we care?
- The brains of male and female students are equally capable of succeeding in mathematics.
- Students may not achieve their full potential.
- Many careers in STEM fields require mathematics skills.
In a volatile and uncertain world, having educated females in as many fields of endeavour as possible is desirable. But, far more importantly in my view, is that to not address this issue, we take away agency and opportunity, we allow girls to dwell in fear and dependency instead of hope and we recreate a past instead of opening up a future.
What can we do?
One of the biggest blockers for female secondary students of mathematics is hormonal. Just as they are trying to find and form an identity, mathematics in particular, can compel students to view themselves in a less-than-positive light. Self-esteem and how they feel about themselves is a huge contributor to putting effort into succeeding at something that is challenging. Some girls judge ‘worthwhileability’ as something worth putting their self-esteem on the line in the present moment of the class, not for some future payoff.
(1) Being in a single sex class has some huge benefits with mitigating against this to a certain extent. Here are just a few of the research studies:
- UK research has found that girls attending girls’ schools possess higher ‘mental toughness’ scores than girls from co-educational schools. Mental toughness determines how a person deals with opportunities, challenges, stress and pressure.
- A study examining the effect of single-sex maths classes in co-educational schools in Chile has found that they reduce the maths gender gap between girls and boys “by more than half”.
- An Israeli study comparing the maths achievement of male and female students in single-sex and mixed-sex classes in primary and middle school found where students learn in single-sex classrooms, “the average maths achievement of girls is almost always higher than the average achievement of boys”
- A Jordanian study found that 4th grade girls slightly outperform boys in maths overall, but that girls attending single-sex schools show the biggest advantage
- A 2017 study of Year 3, 5 and 7 numeracy and literacy (NAPLAN) data by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) found that even when socioeconomic status was taken into account, Year 7 girls at single-sex schools were 4.2 terms ahead of co-ed students in reading and 2.8 terms ahead in mathematics
(2) Social Persuasion – changing the narrative
- Listen, support but don’t ‘rescue’. People will rise to the level of expectation. If parents/caregivers always step in, what message does this give our girls?
- Catch them using absolute phrases such as “I never…” or “I always…” or “I can’t…” and turn them into positives (Employ the word ‘yet’). Sometimes the biggest bias we have to break is the one in our own heads that inhibits us from achieving outside our comfort zones; a form of imposter syndrome and a misperception that we need to be perfect to be successful. A female friend of mine once told me that women will not apply for positions unless they are confident they can do everything on the job description whereas men read the job description and see a few things they can do and apply, believing they can pick up the rest as they learn the job.
- Reward hard work and build confidence – say that it's okay if you don't understand straight away. What can you do to develop understanding over time?
- Don’t say “It’s OK…I was never good at mathematics either”. Instead, talk about a situation in which you faced a challenge and what you did about it. To be blunt, it’s not about affirming who you are but, rather, not closing down opportunities for them.
- Emphasise personal best. Girls tend to internalise failure as due to who they are but externalise success to ‘luck’ or something/someone else. Help them to own their success and articulate what they did that led to that success.
Finally, my plea today is not so much to ‘break the bias’ but to not allow girls within your sphere of influence to either be put, or put themselves, into predetermined boxes or box them into ways of thinking that limit their capacity to be more fearless, to be more independent, to be more determined and perseverant, to be more powerful … to ‘be’ more than what they think they can be."