Girls’ underrepresentation in high-level post-compulsory mathematics is a longstanding issue of concern in many Western nations, with innumerable efforts to increase their participation producing little impact. In this paper, we shed new light on girls’ underrepresentation through a post-structural feminist investigation of mathematics teachers’ discursive constructions of high-level senior secondary mathematics students. Our analysis of semi-structured interviews with 22 Australian mathematics teachers revealed gendered views that serve to exclude many students from the high-level mathematics student category. Most concerning was their recurring naturalised construction of successful high-level mathematics students as endowed with the right, invariably male, brain. In so doing, teachers repeatedly closed off the possibility of success to those lacking such a ‘mathematics gift’, effectively ‘counting girls out’. We argue that increasing girls’ participation in mathematics requires moving beyond current efforts to raise female interest and confidence to, more profoundly, disrupt enduring discourses of male superiority in mathematics.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
The Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA) is a standardised Australian scale with a mean of 1000 and standard deviation of 100 which uses student level data (proportion of Indigenous students as well as parent education and occupation) and school location to measure school socio-educational advantage. A higher score indicates a relative lack of disadvantage.
We use the term ‘giftedness’ to reflect the invocation of the phrase ‘mathematics gift’ used by some participants in discussing this subject position.
Alderton, J. (2020). Kelly’s story: Transformative identity work in primary mathematics teacher education. Gender and Education, 32(2), 145–160. https://doi.org/10.1080/09540253.2017.1336204
Atweh, B., & Cooper, T. (1995). The construction of gender, social class and mathematics in the classroom. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 28, 293–310.
Banerjee, M., Schenke, K., Lam, A., & Eccles, J. S. (2018). The roles of teachers, classroom experiences, and finding balance: A qualitative perspective on the experiences and expectations of females within STEM and non-STEM careers. International Journal of Gender, Science and Technology, 10(2), 287–307.
Barrett, M. J. (2005). Making [some] sense of feminist poststructuralism in environmental education research and practice. Canadian Journal of Environmental Education, 10, 79–93.
Blackburn, H. (2017). The status of women in STEM in higher education: A review of the literature 2007–2017. Science & Technology Libraries, 36(3), 235–273. https://doi.org/10.1080/0194262X.2017.1371658
Burman, E. (1994). Deconstructing developmental psychology. London, UK: Routledge.
Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. London, UK: Routledge.
Butler, J. (1993). Bodies that matter: On the discursive limits of sex. New York, NY: Routlege.
Creswell, J. (2013). Qualitative inquiry and research design. California: Sage Publications.
Damarin, S. (2000). The mathematically able as a marked category. Gender and Education, 12(1), 69–85. https://doi.org/10.1080/09540250020418
de Freitas, E. (2008). Troubling teacher identity: Preparing mathematics teachers to teach for diversity. Teaching Education, 19(1), 43–55. https://doi.org/10.1080/10476210701860024
Easey, M., & Gleeson, J. (2016). The relevance of mathematics: Leaders and teachers as gatekeeper for Queensland senior calculus mathematics. In B. White, M. Chinnappan, & S. Trenholm (Eds.), Opening up mathematics education research: Proceedings of the 39th annual conference of the Mathematics Education Research Group of Australasia (pp. 198–205). Adelaide, Australia: MERGA.
Emilson, A., Folkesson, A. M., & Lindberg, I. M. (2016). Gender beliefs and embedded gendered values in preschool. International Journal of Early Childhood, 48(2), 225–240. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13158-016-0162-4
Engebretson, K. E. (2016). Talking (fe)male: Examining the gendered discourses of preservice teachers. Gender and Education, 28(1), 37–54. https://doi.org/10.1080/09540253.2015.1096917
Ernest, J. B., Reinholz, D. L., & Shah, N. (2019). Hidden competence: Women’s mathematical participation in public and private classroom spaces. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 102, 153–172. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10649-019-09910-w
Espinoza, P., Arêas da Luz Fontes, A., & Arms-Chavez, C. (2014). Attributional gender bias: Teachers’ ability and effort explanations for students’ math performance. Social Psychology of Education, 17(1), 105–126. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11218-013-9226-6
Fennema, E., Peterson, P. L., Carpenter, T. P., & Lubinski, C. A. (1990). Teachers’ attributions and beliefs about girls, boys, and mathematics. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 21(1), 55–69. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00311015
Foucault, M. (1970). The order of things: An archeology of the human sciences. London, UK: Tavistock.
Foucault, M. (1980). Power/knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings. New York, UK: Pantheon.
Foyn, T., Solomon, Y., & Braathe, H. J. (2018). Clever girls’ stories: The girls they call a nerd. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 98, 77–93. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10649-017-9801-4
Francis, B. (2010). Re/theorising gender: Female masculinity and male femininity in the classroom? Gender and Education, 22(5), 477–490. https://doi.org/10.1080/09540250903341146
Francis, B. (2012). Gender monoglossia, gender heteroglossia: The potential of Bakhtin's work for re-conceptualising gender. Journal of Gender Studies, 21(1), 1–15. https://doi.org/10.1080/09589236.2012.639174
Francis, B., Archer, L., Moote, J., DeWitt, J., MacLeod, E., & Yeomans, L. (2017). The construction of physics as a quintessentially masculine subject: Young people’s perceptions of gender issues in access to physics. Sex Roles, 76(3), 156–174. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-016-0669-z
Gentrup, S., Lorenz, G., Kristen, C., & Kogan, I. (2020). Self-fulfilling prophecies in the classroom: Teacher expectations, teacher feedback and student achievement. Learning and Instruction, 66, 101296. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.learninstruc.2019.101296
Gore, J., Holmes, K., Smith, M., Fray, L., McElduff, P., Weaver, N., & Wallington, C. (2017). Unpacking the career aspirations of Australian school students: Towards an evidence base for university equity initiatives in schools. Higher Education Research and Development, 36(7), 1383–1400. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2017.1325847
Gore, J., Holmes, K., Smith, M., Southgate, E., & Albright, J. (2015). Socioeconomic status and the career aspirations of Australian school students: Testing enduring assumptions. The Australian Educational Researcher, 42(2), 155–177. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13384-015-0172-5
Gore, J., Jaremus, F., Lloyd, A., Fray, L., Prieto, E. & Weaver, N. (2017). Girls in mathematics: Final report. Retrieved from: http://hdl.handle.net/1959.13/1416019. Accessed 18 Aug 2020.
Guest, G., MacQueen, K., & Namey, E. (2011). Applied thematic analysis. London, UK: Sage Publications.
Gunderson, E. A., Ramirez, G., Levine, S. C., & Beilock, S. L. (2012). The role of parents and teachers in the development of gender-related math attitudes. Sex Roles, 66, 153–166. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-011-9996-2
Gutiérrez, R. (2013). The sociopolitical turn in mathematics education. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 44(1), 37–68. https://doi.org/10.5951/jresematheduc.44.1.0037
Hand, S., Rice, L., & Greenlee, E. (2017). Exploring teachers’ and students’ gender role bias and students’ confidence in STEM fields. Social Psychology of Education, 20(4), 929–945. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11218-017-9408-8
Hannah, D. R., & Lautsch, B. A. (2010). Counting in qualitative research: Why to conduct it, when to avoid it, and when to closet it. Journal of Management Inquiry, 20(1), 14–22. https://doi.org/10.1177/1056492610375988
Henriksen, E. K. (2015). Introduction: Participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education: Presenting the challenge and introducing Project IRIS. In E. K. Henriksen, J. Dillon, & J. Ryder (Eds.), Understanding student participation and choice in science and technology education (pp. 1–14). Dordrecht, the Netherlands: Springer.
Hossain, S., Mendick, H., & Adler, J. (2013). Troubling “understanding mathematics in-depth”: Its role in the identity work of student-teachers in England. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 84, 35–48. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10649-013-9474-6
Jaremus, F., Gore, J., Fray, L., & Prieto-Rodriguez, E. (2019). Senior secondary student participation in STEM: Beyond national statistics. Mathematics Education Research Journal, 31(2), 151–173. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13394-018-0247-5
Jaremus, F., Gore, J., Fray, L., & Prieto-Rodriguez, E. (2020). Grouped out of STEM degrees: The overlooked mathematics ‘glass ceiling’ in NSW secondary schools. International Journal of Inclusive Education. Advance online publication., 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1080/13603116.2020.1776778
Johnson, A., Brown, J., Carlone, H., & Cuevas, A. K. (2011). Authoring identity amidst the treacherous terrain of science: A multiracial feminist examination of the journeys of three women of color in science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 48(4), 339–366. https://doi.org/10.1002/tea.20411
Kennedy, J., Lyons, T., & Quinn, F. (2014). The continuing decline of science and mathematics enrolments in Australian high schools. Teaching Science, 60(2), 34–46.
Krkovic, K., Greiff, S., Kupiainen, S., Vainikainen, M.-P., & Hautamäki, J. (2014). Teacher evaluation of student ability: What roles do teacher gender, student gender, and their interaction play? Educational Research, 56(2), 244–257. https://doi.org/10.1080/00131881.2014.898909
Lazarides, R., & Watt, H. M. G. (2015). Girls' and boys' perceived mathematics teacher beliefs, classroom learning environments and mathematical career intentions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 41, 51–61. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cedpsych.2014.11.005
Leyva, L. A. (2017). Unpacking the male superiority myth and masculinization of mathematics at the intersections: A review of research on gender in mathematics education. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 48(4), 397–433. https://doi.org/10.5951/jresematheduc.48.4.0397
Li, Q. (1999). Teachers’ beliefs and gender differences in mathematics: A review. Educational Research, 41(1), 63–76. https://doi.org/10.1080/0013188990410106
Makarova, E., & Herzog, W. (2015). Trapped in the gender stereotype? The image of science among secondary school students and teachers. Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal, 34(2), 106–123. https://doi.org/10.1108/EDI-11-2013-0097
Marginson, S., Tytler, R., Freeman, B., & Roberts, K. (2013). STEM: Country comparisons. International comparisons of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. Final report. Retrieved from: https://acola.org.au/wp/PDF/SAF02Consultants/SAF02_STEM_%20FINAL.pdf. Accessed 26 Jul 2019.
Mendick, H. (2006). Masculinities in mathematics. In Educating boys, learning gender. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.
Mendick, H. (2013). Choosing subjects: Sociological approaches to young women’s subject choices. In R. Brooks, M. McCormack, & K. Bhopal (Eds.), Contemporary debates in the sociology of education (pp. 202–217). London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
Miner, K. N., Walker, J. M., Bergman, M. E., Jean, V. A., Carter-Sowell, A., January, S. C., & Kanaus, C. (2018). From “her” problem to “our” problem: Using an individual lens versus a social-structural lens to understand gender inequity in STEM. Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice, 11(2), 267–290. https://doi.org/10.1017/iop.2018.7
Mizala, A., Martínez, F., & Martínez, S. (2015). Pre-service elementary school teachers’ expectations about student performance: How their beliefs are affected by their mathematics anxiety and student’s gender. Teaching and Teacher Education, 50, 70–78. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2015.04.006
Moreau, M.-P., Mendick, H., & Epstein, D. (2010). Constructions of mathematicians in popular culture and learners’ narratives: A study of mathematical and non-mathematical subjectivities. Cambridge Journal of Education, 40(1), 25–38. https://doi.org/10.1080/03057640903567013
Murphy, S. (2018). School location and socio-economic status and patterns of participation and achievement in year 12 enabling mathematics. In J. Hunter, P. Perger, & L. Darragh (Eds.), Making waves, opening spaces: Proceedings of the 41st annual conference of the Mathematics Education Research Group of Australasia (pp. 583–590). Auckland: MERGA.
Murphy, S., MacDonald, A., Danaia, L., & Wang, C. (2018). An analysis of Australian STEM education strategies. Policy Futures in Education, 17(2), 122–139. https://doi.org/10.1177/1478210318774190
Noyes, A., & Adkins, M. (2016). Studying advanced mathematics in England: Findings from a survey of student choices and attitudes. British Society for Research Into Learning Mathematics. Research in Mathematics Education, 18(3), 231–248. https://doi.org/10.1080/14794802.2016.1188139
Nürnberger, M., Nerb, J., Schmitz, F., Keller, J., & Sütterlin, S. (2016). Implicit gender stereotypes and essentialist beliefs predict preservice teachers’ tracking recommendations. The Journal of Experimental Education, 84(1), 152–174. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220973.2015.1027807
Office of the Chief Scientist. (2016). STEM Programme Index 2016. Retrieved from http://www.chiefscientist.gov.au/wp-content/uploads/SPI2016_release.pdf. Accessed 17 Jun 2019.
Perez-Felkner, L., Nix, S., & Thomas, K. (2017). Gendered pathways: How mathematics ability beliefs shape secondary and postsecondary course and degree field choices. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 1–11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00386
Philipp, R. A. (2007). Mathematics teachers’ beliefs and affect. In F. Lester (Ed.), Second handbook of research on mathematics teaching and learning (pp. 257–315). National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
PricewaterhouseCoopers Australia. (2015). A smart move: Future-proofing Australia’s workforce by growing skills in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). Retrieved from http://pwc.docalytics.com/v/a-smart-move-pwc-stem-report-april-2015. Accessed 26 Aug 2019.
Riegle-Crumb, C., & Humphries, M. (2012). Exploring bias in math teachers’ perceptions of students’ ability by gender and race/ethnicity. Gender & Society, 26(2), 290–322. https://doi.org/10.1177/0891243211434614
Roberts, K. (2014). Engaging more women and girls in mathematics and STEM fields: The international evidence. Retrieved from http://amsi.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/RobertsGenderSTEMreport2014.pdf. Accesssed 10 June 2019.
Sheffield, L. J. (2017). Dangerous myths about “gifted” mathematics students. ZDM, 49(1), 13–23. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11858-016-0814-8
Simon, M. K. (2000). The evolving role of women in mathematics. The Mathematics Teacher, 93(9), 782–786.
Smith, E. (2010). Do we need more scientists? A long-term view of patterns of participation in UK undergraduate science programmes. Cambridge Journal of Education, 40(3), 281–298. https://doi.org/10.1080/0305764X.2010.502886
Taylor, S. (2001). Locating and conducting discourse analytic research. In M. Wetherall, S. Taylor, & S. J. Yates (Eds.), Discourse theory and practice: A reader. Sage.
Thomson, S., De Bortoli, L., & Underwood, C. (2016). PISA 2015: A first look at Australia’s results. Retrieved from: http://www.acer.edu.au/ozpisa. Accessed 12 Dec 2018.
Tiedemann, J. (2000). Gender-related beliefs of teachers in elementary school mathematics. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 41(2), 191–207. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1003953801526
Tiedemann, J. (2002). Teachers’ gender stereotypes as determinants of teacher perceptions in elementary school mathematics. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 50(1), 49–62. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1020518104346
United Nations, Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization [UNESCO]. (2017). Cracking the code: Girls’ and womens’ education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Paris, France: Author.
Universities Admissions Centre. (2017). University entry requirements 2020 for Year 10 students. Retrieved from: http://www.uac.edu.au/documents/publications/year10-booklet-20.pdf. Accessed 12 Oct 2018.
Valero, P. (2015). Re-interpreting students’ interest in mathematics: Youth culture and subjectivity. In U. Gellert, J. G. Rodriguez, C. Hahn, & S. Kafoussi (Eds.), Educational paths to mathematics: A CIEAEM sourcebook (pp. 15–32). New York, NY: Springer.
van Amsterdam, N., Knoppers, A., Claringbould, I., & Jongmans, M. (2012). ‘It's just the way it is…’ or not? How physical education teachers categorise and normalise differences. Gender and Education, 24(7), 783–798. https://doi.org/10.1080/09540253.2012.677013
Walkerdine, V. (1989). Counting girls out. London, UK: Virago.
Walshaw, M. (2001). A Foucauldian gaze on gender research: What do you do when confronted with the tunnel at the end of the light? Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 35(5), 471–492. https://www.jstor.org/stable/749802
Watt, H. (2016). Promoting girls’ and boys’ engagement and participation in senior secondary STEM fields and occupational aspirations. ACER 2016 Research Conference Proceedings (pp. 34-44). Melbourne, Australia: Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER).
Watt, H. M. G., Eccles, J. S., & Durik, A. M. (2006). The leaky mathematics pipeline for girls: A motivational analysis of high school enrolments in Australia and the USA. Equal Opportunities International, 25(8), 642–659.
Watt, H. M. G., Shapka, J. D., Morris, Z. A., Durik, A. M., Keating, D. P., & Eccles, J. S. (2012). Gendered motivational processes affecting high school mathematics participation, educational aspirations, and career plans: A comparison of samples from Australia, Canada, and the United States. Developmental Psychology, 48(6), 1594–1611. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0027838
Weedon, C. (1987). Feminist practice and poststructuralism. New York, NY: Basil Blackwell.
The content of the paper is the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily reflect the views of the funding bodies.
This work was supported by the Department of Education and Training; Australian Research Council and NSW Department of Education [grant number LP12100013]. The extension study reported in this paper was supported by the estate of Margaret Bowers, a dedicated teacher of mathematics to girls. Felicia is currently supported by a Research Training Program Scholarship (RTS).
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Appendix Teacher interview questions
Appendix Teacher interview questions
Can you tell me a little about the school and about the mathematics department?
Can you describe the level of interest shown in mathematics at your school? (by girls/by boys)
Can you tell me about the advice you give to students regarding choosing mathematics for their HSC?
On average, what proportion of students take mathematics for their HSC? (level, girls/boys, why would a student choose each level)
Can you tell me about the kinds of students who usually choose advanced mathematics for their HSC?
Can you tell me about the kinds of students who do well in mathematics? What sort of careers advice, if any, would you give to these students?
If I name a few jobs to you can you tell me about the type of student they would suit and why? (Nurse, mechanic, engineer, mathematician/statistician, computer scientist, veterinarian, physicist, builder, doctor, lawyer)
What do you think could help more students/girls/boys with mathematics?
Note: HSC, or Higher School Certificate, is the name of the Year 11 and 12 matriculation qualification for NSW students.
About this article
Cite this article
Jaremus, F., Gore, J., Prieto-Rodriguez, E. et al. Girls are still being ‘counted out’: teacher expectations of high-level mathematics students. Educ Stud Math 105, 219–236 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10649-020-09986-9
- Secondary school mathematics
- Subject choice