Like A Girl

Pushing the conversation on gender equality.

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Girls Look for Math Help Twice as Often as Boys

The transition from middle school to high school is a critical time period for students. They are now into their teenage years, experiencing emotional, mental, and physical transformations. They have greater responsibility and expectations upon them. Perhaps most daunting is that in four short years, half of them will go directly into higher education while the other half will seek employment. So begins the worry about the future.

For most students, particularly those heading into higher education, math is a particular cause of academic anxiety. Due to a variety of reasons, many students have a suboptimal understanding of key concepts, which is exacerbated by the pace of mathematics in high school. This leads students to struggle and look for additional assistance, which may come in the form of tutoring or online resources.

In January of 2017, we launched a series of grade 9 math prep courses to help students prepare for exams, test our dynamic question generator, and to better understand whether students improve their understanding of key concepts with practice. In the first few days, hundreds of students used our free prep courses to practice tens of thousands of questions and improve their overall performance. That is when we noticed a pattern which has continued since that initial launch.

What we found is with students who took the math prep courses, girls engaged twice as often as boys. This initial result surprised me, but it also troubled me. It bothers me because I hear that boys are better at math, that boys like math more than girls (more on that in a future post), and that, as a result, boys gravitate towards academic paths that lead to STEM careers more than girls. Now, in front of me, I had data that girls were engaging more often and answering more questions than boys. This was, interesting, but we needed more data than just a few weeks.

First, we quickly dispelled the notion that any sort of data gathering or corruption issue had occurred. Then, over the following months teachers used our app in class for both grade 8 and 9 students. This gave us reliable data. Once again, we saw the same trends. While girls and boys were spending the same amount of time in class, the girls were spending more time during the evenings and weekends, Sunday evenings in particular, practicing math problems.

This still asks the question: Why would girls spend more time practicing math questions rather than boys? Now I had no other choice than to speak with teachers and their students, about what what the data was telling us. In conversations with the teachers, there was a common theme — a willingness to ask for help without standing out. Whether it was due to their past experience in their education, or their discomfort to standout from their peers, girls were asking fewer questions in class, but were more willing to seek out assistance privately.

In feedback from students, the common themes were about their confidence with math and access to help. Girls have less confidence than boys when it comes to math (again, more on this in a future post) and they seek experiences that allow them to practice in a safe and comfortable environment. Teachers also emphasized safety and providing feedback in a private, non-judgemental, and constructive manner. They also highlighted the social pressures students, both girls and boys, face and the added scrutiny from their peers makes them less likely to draw attention in both the physical and digital world.

All of this leads us to a better understanding of why girls engage with our math prep courses at twice the rate of boys. Students care about their future, they want to get good grades, and they know when they need help. However, many students are uncomfortable publicly asking for help, but are willing to do so in a safe way. They want something accessible and supportive. This is likely why students who are not as confident with math look for help and spend more time practicing. In this case that lack of confidence lies, disproportionately, with girls.

It is now early July. Another group of students have just finished the semester and school year. Our app has changed. It is more supportive, includes more questions, and provides better direction. There is still an imbalance in engagement rates and, while I understand why it exists, I am still uncomfortable. What I now have is a data point that by the time girls reach grade 9 they have less confidence in math than boys. This is something we all need to work on to change.

I wish I could end on a more positive note, but I will not sugar coat this issue. This is the unfortunate reality of the situation. However, what I also know is that students — particularly girls — are willing to seek help in subjects like math. When the opportunities exist, students overcome the barriers and empower themselves.