Switching teenage girls onto maths

Smiling teenage girl thinking about maths

At a glance

  • It's all about confidence when it comes to maths and girls.
  • The stereotype that maths is dorky and girls don't do it is dated and unhelpful.
  • Parental involvement makes a huge difference in girls' attitudes towards maths.
  • If you think your daughter is tuning out of maths, take time to talk about the maths she is doing.
  • Maths helps kids to become good problem solvers in general.

If you have a teenage girl whose face sours at the mention of multiplication, don't be dismayed. Forget the myths you've heard about males, females, Mars and Venus, it's all about confidence when it comes to girls and maths. That's according to those in the classrooms and those looking at the research.

"Boys tend to attribute success in maths to natural ability and failure to lack of effort, whereas girls tend to attribute success in maths to hard work and failure to lack of ability," says Dr Mary Coupland, president of the Mathematical Association of New South Wales. 

It teaches you a way to solve anything. Nagla Jebeile Moorefield Girls High School

Unfortunately, says Mary, a lack of confidence picked up during primary school years, together with the pressure of remnant social stereotypes that maths is dorky and girls don't do it, often means maths-capable girls choose to take the less demanding number options in their final school years.

"And that can dramatically cut out their options for study."

Building maths confidence in teen girls

Nagla Jebeile is the head maths teacher at Sydney's Moorefield Girls High School and agrees that young girls often reject maths because they feel they can't do it.

"Many girls don't have the confidence or self-esteem to think that they can do it. If they haven't experienced success in the past, they can get intimidated. Not all girls are in that category – it just depends on their experiences in primary school, whether or not they were successful."

Teachers have classroom techniques to try and engage the less-confident students, but parental involvement makes a huge difference. If you think your daughter is beginning to tune out of maths, take time to sit with her and talk about the maths she is doing, says Nagla. Have your daughter read the questions and explain her approach to the solution, ensuring she understands the necessary steps. And, don't fret! A lot of the maths in the junior high school years can still be understood by most parents.

Of course it can be a little bit harder to inspire enthusiasm if your own face crumples at the thought of maths, and if that's the case it's important to keep the negativity at bay.

Maths with makeup

It can also help to point out to number-reluctant teenage girls the sorts of jobs where they can use maths today. Mary says, fortunately, forensic science television programs have already done a lot to raise the profile of science and the maths behind it for some teenage girls.

But it's not just the career opportunities that make it important for girls to study and succeed in the world of numbers. Confidence in mathematics can help shape their thinking in many other areas as well.

"I think it teaches you a way to solve anything," says Nagla.

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