Teachers' gender bias in maths affects girls later

Teachers have been found to mark boys higher than girls in maths, affecting their self-confidence with the subject. Shutterstock

New research has found some teachers mark boys' primary (elementary) school maths tests more favourably than girls, impacting girls' uptake of advanced mathematics and science subjects in high school. Entrance rates into maths and science degrees at university level can also be traced back to the impacts of teachers' gender bias in primary school.

Higher levels of mathematics and science education have been linked to greater employment opportunities and higher earnings, meaning a primary teacher’s attitude towards maths can have a serious impact on a child’s future success.

Teachers assume boys are better at maths

The researchers followed nearly 3000 students from 6th grade to the end of high school. As a measure of teacher bias, they compared school 6th grade test marks given by teachers who knew the students' sex, with external test marks for the same students, but with no identifying characteristics provided. The researchers identified that a worrying number of teachers gave boys higher maths test results than girls of the same ability. They also studied the long-term effects of this bias.

The study found that the effects of teacher bias (measured by giving lower marks in mathematics for the same standard of work as boys) persisted for girls, leading to poorer results through their high school years. However, many boys whose teachers over-assessed their performance in the early years went on to be successful in mathematics and science.

How students see themselves as learners is vital to encouraging them to study at higher levels. Girls in the study reported they were getting less support from “biased” teachers. This support is important for their future studies, as a study developed by international universities found that girls (more than boys) rated personal encouragement from teachers as very important in choosing university courses.

Results from long-term studies show that the way students rate their abilities in mathematics and science in 8th grade has a positive effect on how likely they are to earn a STEM (Science Technology, Engineering or Mathematics) degree.

The bias shown in the new study reflects the gender stereotype that girls and women cannot do maths. Employers also show bias against hiring women for mathematical tasks. However, studies of international test results show the gender gap disappears in countries with more gender-equal cultures such as Norway and Sweden, indicating that cultural biases can be altered.

Maths test anxiety and maths anxiety

In many countries across the world, children are being tested at an unprecedented level, along with an increased emphasis on accountability and standards.

Concerns have been raised about what is being tested: is it the knowledge and skills of the student? Or a measure of the educational quality of the teacher or school? Many question the time and energy taken to prepare students for tests. Another major concern that has been raised is the stress caused by students’ anxiety about the tests.

Academic and popular writing contains examples of stories of people who do not perform well in test or evaluation situations. Malcolm Gladwell examines failure in his article for The New Yorker, and Sian Beilock, in her book Choke, reports that high-achieving students are often the ones most likely to fail under pressure.

Many concerns that are raised about testing, particularly by parents, relate to the stress they see caused to their children. Maths test anxiety has been identified as a major factor in maths anxiety, and students with maths anxiety may not achieve their full potential, unless this anxiety is addressed.

Maths anxiety cycle in the classroom

The new maths and gender report found that older, single teachers show more bias towards boys, but the sex of the teacher was not dealt with in the report. This was a surprising omission, as most primary teachers are female and this factor could be important to the discussion of the implications of the findings for the classroom.

Some female primary teachers say that they are unwilling to teach years 5 or 6 because of their feelings about maths. Researchers of primary students reported that if female teachers have high maths anxiety, this can be passed on to students, especially female students, reinforcing the attitudes and responses assimilated from the society around them. Addressing maths anxiety in teachers such as these is important in breaking this cycle.

Many adults’ feelings of fear and failure, and anxiety about mathematics, date from their early school experiences. Avoiding mathematics can limit future opportunities in our modern technological society.

Results from studies like the maths and gender report raise red flags for the teaching profession. Teachers, teacher educators and pre-service teachers need to reflect together on what they can learn from such research, and its implications for the classroom. The ultimate goal of public conversations about studies such as this is to bring about a societal shift on ideas about what genders can or can’t do.