• by Anita Tijerina Revilla, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • March 1998 • 

For many centuries, poems and stories have cast boys and girls into two separate categories – girls are sweet and boys are tough. Many societies have encouraged sexist portrayals of the genders. This has led to stereotypes asserting that girls are too emotional and too soft for math and science careers. Some people believe that girls just naturally do not do well in highly technical fields. Despite the success of many women in the field of mathematics, these stereotypes continue to pervade classrooms and workplaces.

Boys and girls are victims of prejudice in the form of unfair treatment and miseducation. This is due in part to stereotypes that penetrate the subconscious (and sometimes conscious) thoughts of teachers, administrators, parents and students in classrooms all around the world.

Historical Women in Math

While many people have little or no knowledge of the historical development of mathematics in different civilizations, there are women who are credited for their contributions to the field. Among them is Hypatia, a Greek woman born in A.D. 370. She was one of the first women in mathematics who was acknowledged by historians of her time. Hypatia was the daughter of a mathematics professor. Her father passed on his passion for math to his daughter and saw to it that Hypatia received an accelerated education. She became a philosopher and mathematician.

Although Hypatia’s success was not acknowledged by many leaders of her time, she was well respected and accepted by other scholars. She taught mathematics and philosophy at the university in Athens. She taught students from Europe, Asia and Africa. She made a number of contributions that were either lost or ignored until several centuries later. These contributions include mathematical treatises, astronomical inventions, textbooks and scientific measurement tools. Because her intelligence was threatening and her beliefs were counter to the Christian hierarchy of Alexandria, she was attacked by mobs and was beaten and burned to death in A.D. 415 (Osen, 1974).

A notable female mathematician from contemporary times is Edna Lee Paisano. Paisano was born in 1948 on the Nez Percé reservation and was still working in the field of mathematics in 1993 when her story was written by Teri Perl in Women and Numbers: Lives of Women Mathematicians Plus Discovery Activities (1993). Paisano is a Nez Percé and Laguna Pueblo Native American from Idaho. Paisano was economically disadvantaged. When she was a young girl, her family earned money by raising cows and making moccasins and purses to sell.

Paisano faced the struggle of becoming a mathematician in much the same way that other minority women do. She was forced to make the decision between becoming a mathematician and pursuing a field that would be “useful to her community.” She did not realize at the time that mathematics could be useful to her people. In college, she majored in sociology and received a master’s degree in social work, which eventually led her to a federal job with the U.S. Census Bureau. She was the first Native American to work for the bureau. Paisano was finally able to use her skills for computer programming and statistics. As a result, she helped her people receive more equitable treatment from census bureau data collectors.

Hypatia and Edna Lee Paisano are among numerous remarkable women who succeeded in spite of the inequities they faced. It is these inequities that IDRA works to keep out of today’s classrooms.

Inequities in Schools

In general and across academic subjects, girls have been shortchanged. Myra and David Sadker wrote about the inequities suffered in schools by girls and boys in their book, Failing at Fairness: How Our Schools Cheat Girls (1994). The Sadkers describe many situations of struggle, pointing in particular to the lack of interaction between teachers and girls in school, the plummet of self-esteem for girls in their teenage years, the search for self identity in high school, gender barriers to higher education and the miseducation of boys.

For years, the Sadkers have studied sexism in schools and found that many girls are either ignored or belittled by adults and peers. While teachers may not recognize the distinctions they create in the classroom, students begin to internalize and enact the prejudices. For example, girls tend to be silenced or angered by the fact that they receive little attention from teachers, and many children and adults have shown that they accept the status quo. In fact, adults often fall into school age gender roles when they are in classroom settings.

Other problems that the Sadkers mention are the lack of role models, the forcing of gender roles on boys and girls and the lack of adult-based motivation. They further explain:

While boys rise to the top of the class, they also land at the bottom. Labeled as problems in need of special control or assistance, boys are likely to fail a course, miss promotion or drop out of school…Girls suffer silent losses, but boys’ problems are loud enough to be heard throughout the school (Sadker and Sadker, 1994).

Essentially, boys and girls face situations of injustice due to stereotypes, competition and misinformation.

Useful Strategies for the Classroom

According to a study conducted by the Women’s Educational Equity Act (WEEA) program and the University of Nevada, there are at least nine areas of need regarding successful involvement of girls in mathematics. They are:

  • changing attitudes about math,
  • proving the relevance and use of math,
  • improving the learning environment,
  • increasing access to technology,
  • improving spatial visualization skills,
  • improving test-taking skills,
  • increasing parental involvement,
  • working with school counselors, and
  • working with administrators and other teachers to promote math (WEAA, 1990).

In the publication Add-Ventures for Girls: Building Math Confidence, Junior High Teacher’s Guide, the authors state:

    At the elementary level, girls often enjoy math and attain achievement levels equal to or higher than those of boys; however, by the time they reach high school, many bright girls become disinterested in mathematics, enroll in fewer advanced math classes, achieve lower math scores than boys on college placement tests, and are less likely to choose careers that are math-related (WEEA, 1990).

WEEA recognizes that there is no one reason this happens, but there are several effective strategies that teachers and schools can embrace to create equitable mathematics instruction. WEEA has created guides for teachers at the middle school and elementary school levels. The strategies that WEEA recommends to change attitudes about math are listed in the box below. These strategies are only the beginning. In the WEEA teacher guides, there are hundreds more along with resources with activities for students of all ages. It is also important to consider race and gender when searching for relevant materials and meaningful activities (Zaslavsky, 1994). The more sense a subject makes in a student’s mind, the more enthusiastic he or she will become.

IDRA is dedicated to ensuring equitable education for all students. It offers information and training in the priority area of gender equity. Research and piloting has created some solutions. But these must be embraced by entire school communities to succeed comprehensively.

Strategies for Equitable Mathematics Instruction

  • Publicly and privately acknowledge students’ academic and intellectual accomplishments (not their effort).
  • Make sure that girls get enough practice that they can be confident with their math skills.
  • Use slates or individual dry erase boards to encourage low pressure and spontaneous answers.
  • Structure math learning activities so that all students will be able to achieve success at some level.
  • Incorporate math problems that call for many approaches with several right answers.
  • Provide opportunities for estimating, guessing and checking.
  • Recognize students’ math achievement, especially improvement. Create a “math star” bulletin board.
  • Help girls to recognize that it is okay to acknowledge their own mathematical ability without feeling embarrassed or conceited.
  • Create opportunities for cooperative learning and minimize overt competition between classmates.
    Practice math skills on computers.
  • Overcome personal anxiety about math with resources such as Mind Over Math by S. Kogelman and J. Warren and Overcoming Math Anxiety by S. Tobias.
  • Turn the tables in class and let students ask the teacher questions about math.
  • Use girls as peer tutors in math.

Source: Add-Ventures for Girls: Building Math Confidence Junior High Teacher’s Guide by Women’s Educational Equity Act Program and the University of Nevada?(Newton, Mass.: WEEA Publishing Center, 1990).


Kogelman, S. and J. Warren. Mind Over Math (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 1978).

Osen, L. M. Women in Mathematics (Boston, Mass.: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1974).

Perl, T. Women and Numbers: Lives of Women Mathematicians Plus Discovery Activities (Tetra, Calif.: Wide World Publishing, 1993).

Sadker, M. and D. Sadker. Failing at Fairness: How our Schools Cheat Girls (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1994).

Tobias, S. Overcoming Math Anxiety (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 1978).

WEEA (Women’s Educational Equity Act) Program and the University of Nevada. Add-Ventures for Girls: Building Math Confidence, Junior High Teacher’s Guide (Newton, Mass.: WEEA Publishing Center, 1990).

Zaslavsky, C. Multicultural Math: Hands-On Math Activities Around the World (New York, NY: Scholastic Professional Books, 1994).

Anita Tijerina Revilla, M.A., is an education assistant in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be sent to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©1998, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the March 1998 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]