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When girls do masculinity like boys do: establishing gender heteroglossia in school mathematics participation

Abstract

While mathematics education research has become increasingly concerned with issues of equity, including girls’ participation in the subject, the field remains troubled with conceptualising and operationalising gender. To date, few studies of gender and school mathematics participation have moved beyond conflating gender with sex or categorising masculinities and femininities through the body. This failure to engage with gender conceptualisation has persisted despite the apparent intractability of girls’ underrepresentation in senior secondary mathematics in many contexts, including Australia. In this article, I provide fresh insights into girls’ mathematics participation by employing a conceptualisation of gender as heteroglossic to explore the post-compulsory mathematics participation choices of two school students, one girl and one boy. Using these theoretical tools to decentre the students’ bodies, I demonstrate that the reasons why these students chose to participate in Mathematics Advanced do not distinguish them by their sex/gender, as would be expected in the monoglossic gender system. While femininity was performed, both students’ subject choices were primarily characterised as masculine performances, including establishing themselves as having mathematics brains and seeking to use their mathematics participation to attain prestige. I argue that recognising and normalising girls’ masculinity and boys' femininity, rather than simply categorising gender differences, will be essential to increasing girls’ belonging and participation in mathematics. This will require greater attention to the differences within, and similarities between, the categories of boy and girl.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    While researchers admittedly have limited control over how their research is used, this simplistic portrayal of all women as underconfident illustrates the dangers of the messages average male/female binary comparisons can support.

  2. 2.

    Disruptions to male/female, masculine/feminine dualities, such as when girls do masculinity

  3. 3.

    Public schools regulated by governments and predominantly funded by the states and territories in Australia

  4. 4.

    Mathematics is not compulsory in senior secondary school. NSW students who enrol in mathematics choose between a range of hierarchical non-calculus and calculus options, with the calculus courses considered to be most challenging. There are three calculus-based courses offered to students, with the lowest level generally assumed knowledge for mathematically intensive degrees. See Authors (2019, 2020) for further details.

  5. 5.

    Given our interest in girls’ underrepresentation in mathematics, the sample was skewed towards female students.

  6. 6.

    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.

  7. 7.

    Mathematics General 2 is the most challenging non-calculus mathematics course. While currently the most popular mathematics course in NSW, it is not considered to be suitable preparation for students aiming to study a mathematically intensive degree at university.

  8. 8.

    This is the second highest calculus-based course in NSW. It builds on the content in Mathematics Advanced.

  9. 9.

    displaced violence directed against one’s peers resulting from being oppressed

  10. 10.

    Kimmel (2003) story of becoming a middle-class white man in the 1980’s resonates the ways privilege is often invisible.

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Acknowledgements

The author would like to express her gratitude to all those who participated in the research and the relevant funding bodies. She would also like to express her gratitude to the reviewers and to Kathleen Smithers, Dr Leanne Fray, L/Prof Jennifer Gore, A/Prof Elena Prieto-Rodriguez for their suggestions.

Funding

The extension study reported in this paper was supported by the estate of Margaret Bowers, a dedicated teacher of mathematics to girls. The original aspirations study was supported by the Department of Education and Training, Australian Research Council and NSW Department of Education [grant number LP12100013]. Felicia is currently supported by a Research Training Program Scholarship (RTS).

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Correspondence to Felicia Jaremus.

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Jaremus, F. When girls do masculinity like boys do: establishing gender heteroglossia in school mathematics participation. Math Ed Res J (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13394-020-00355-6

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Keywords

  • Gender
  • Mathematics
  • Participation
  • Secondary education
  • Subject choice