Gender and enrolment in advanced maths

The question of how and why gender continues to act as a catalyst for the engagement with, or withdrawal from, advanced mathematics has been explored in a new study.

Dr Helen Law, a postdoctoral researcher from the University of Tübingen in Germany, found that previous studies rarely examined, using nationally representative samples of Australian students, the extent to which educational experiences and occupational expectations influence gender differences in pursuits of advanced mathematics subjects.

To fill this gap in the research, she analysed data from the 2003 cohort of the Longitudinal Survey of Australian Youth. The results are published in a new Australian Journal of Education paper out today, ‘Why do adolescent boys dominate advanced mathematics subjects in the final year of secondary school in Australia?'.

Law focused on three characteristics of students – mathematics achievement, occupational expectations and self-perceived confidence in mathematical abilities –and examined to what extent they would be associated with gender differences in the choice of advanced mathematics in high school.

‘In my study, I did not only find that on average boys performed slightly better than girls in the mathematical assessment of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), but boys were also more confident of their mathematical abilities at the age of 15 and were considerably more likely to expect a mathematically intensive career when they would be 30-years-old,' she tells Teacher.

‘Furthermore, I found that if girls were as likely as boys to perform well in mathematics, to have more confidence in their mathematical abilities, and to aspire to mathematically intensive careers when they were 15-years-old, the gender gap in the choice of advanced mathematics in Year 12 would decrease greatly.'

Students enrolled in advanced mathematics

Writing in the AJE, Law says between 2003 and 2006, overall, 10 per cent of students took advanced mathematics in Year 12. ‘On the whole, while 13 per cent of boys study advanced mathematics, only eight per cent of girls enrol in the subject. Such a gender gap appears to be small, but in fact the odds of taking up advanced mathematics for girls is only about 62 per cent for the comparable odds for boys. In other words, the girls' relative disadvantage in advanced mathematics enrolment is large.' Data show the gender gap is statistically significant for all states and territories, except the Northern Territory.

Self-perception of mathematical skills

Law says that other international studies (Wilkins, 2004) have shown that even when boys and girls perform equally well in mathematics, boys tend to have higher levels of self-confidence in the subject.

‘Confidence in mathematics is possibly the most important characteristic of students that is related to the gendered choices of advanced mathematics in Year 12, although I did not show in my study whether self-confidence in mathematics, mathematics achievement or occupational expectations at the age of 15 is the most important factor in explaining the gender gap in advanced mathematics enrolment,' she says.

The journal paper suggests that one of the two important reasons that girls often opt out of advanced high school mathematics is that they have lower self-concept in mathematics than boys (Eccles, 2011).

‘Girls are significantly less confident than boys in their mathematical abilities. This is most likely because girls internalise the widely shared gender stereotypical beliefs that males have more natural aptitude for mathematics, abstract thinking and technical problem solving, as argued by the theory of gender essentialism (Barone, 2011; Charles & Bradley, 2009). With less confidence in mathematical competence, girls have a higher chance of eschewing high-level mathematics,' Law writes.

She adds that another important method to further narrow the gender gap in advanced mathematics enrolment in secondary school is to encourage more girls to aspire to mathematics-intensive careers.

What this means for schools and educators

Drawing on her research, Law suggests that schools and educators should help girls build up and keep up their self-confidence in mathematics.

‘School teachers and educators may consider to create a “mistake friendly” learning environment in mathematics classes to encourage girls to engage in mathematics comfortably. School teachers, in particular, should be aware of their own gender bias, if any, in favour of boys regarding mathematical abilities and engagement in high-level mathematics,' she tells Teacher.

Another suggestion to further reduce the gender gap in advanced mathematics enrolment is to encourage girls to aspire to mathematically intensive occupations, Law says. ‘Boys and girls were not born with gender differences in occupational expectations, but they might have learnt the stereotypical belief that some disciplines and occupations are more suitable for a particular gender from their families, schools and society at large.

‘Schools and educators may implement career education that aims to provide students with accurate career information and to counteract the gender stereotypical belief that certain occupations are more appropriate for men or for women.'


Barone, C. (2011). Some things never change: Gender segregation in higher education across eight nations and three decades. Sociology of Education, 84(2), 157-176.

Charles, M., & Bradley, K. (2009). Indulging our gendered selves? Sex segregation by field of study in 44 countries. American Journal of Sociology, 114(4), 924-976.

Eccles, J. S. (2011). Gendered educational and occupational choices: Applying the Eccles et al. model of achievement-related choices. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 35(3), 195-201.

Wilkins, J. L. M. (2004). Mathematics and science self-concept: An international investigation. The Journal of Experimental Education, 72(4), 331-346.

To read the full paper, ‘Why do adolescent boys dominate advanced mathematics subjects in the final year of secondary school in Australia?' published in the Australian Journal for Education, click on the link.

Dr Helen Law suggests that educators work to encourage girls to aspire to mathematically intensive occupations. Is this something that you do in your own school setting?

Which strategies do you employ do improve your students’ self-confidence in mathematics lessons? Have you found that one strategy works particularly well? Is this something you share with colleagues?