A series of articles appeared in the mainstream media recently, highlighting the gender disparity and overall decline in maths participation among high school students.
A recent report has revealed that the proportion of girls not studying any maths for their HSC has almost tripled over the last decade, to 21.5%. There has also been an increase in numbers of male students shunning maths, with 9.8% presently not taking up HSC mathematics.
Maths ceased being a compulsory element of the HSC in New South Wales in 2001. This is one of a number of factors cited for the overall slump in HSC maths student numbers. It has been predicted that the nation's overall productivity will suffer critical skills shortages in the absence of a return to compulsory HSC maths.
The report’s researchers have advised teachers and parents to help re-energise student interest in maths, in order to rectify the gender divide and overall participation rates in HSC mathematics.
The wide gender gap has drawn concern and speculation from several corners.
Many experts contend that gender stereotyping is pervasive, with maths still perceived as a boys’ subject. They forecast worrying long term ramifications of reduced female participation in mathematics.
Mathematics skills are highly valued in the workplace, and are associated with higher starting salaries and employment rates. However, plummeting rates of girls studying maths risked reinforcing the existing gender pay gap, plus the underrepresentation of women in industries such as finance, engineering and medical science, experts have cautioned.
Reserve Bank board member Heather Ridout has warned that contracting rates of students, especially girls, studying HSC maths is a threat to Australia's future economic prosperity.
A recent survey conducted by the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI) among 26 Australian universities, including all Go8 universities, reported that female undergraduates comprised 34% of students in the mathematical sciences.
While lower female enrolments are unfortunate, the present situation means that the girls who do study maths are developing highly valued skills that are in short supply. This places them in excellent standing for rewarding careers across a multitude of positions. Mathematics-trained students can look forward to employment in areas as diverse as teaching, quantitative analysis, biostatistics, and meteorology.
And evidence shows that the girls who do study maths are at the top of their game. In the 2012 HSC, females were the top performers across all mathematics courses, despite a higher proportion of male students in these subjects.
Head of the School of Mathematics and Statistics, Professor Bruce Henry, says the School is taking measures to reverse the downward trend of female participation in mathematics. He emphasises the leading role the School has taken on this issue.
The School runs an annual Girls Do The Maths (GDTM) workshop, which provides an overview to senior female high school students who are interested in mathematics.
GDTM coordinator, Dr Yanan Fan, says the workshop aims to introduce the prospect of studying maths at university level as a “good career choice” for young girls, opening them up to a wide range of professions. It also aspires “to show them how mathematics can be a fun subject”, Dr Fan says.
Dorothy Cheung, a third year BCom/BSc (Advanced Mathematics) student at UNSW, attended the workshop in 2010. “The workshop was one of the main reasons why I wanted to do maths at UNSW”, she says. “They showed us a lot of different career paths which lead from doing maths. I looked at the variety of the career paths, and thought that doing maths could give me more flexibility and diversity”.
The 2013 GDTM workshop will be held on Friday 24th May.
Professor Henry also acknowledges the positive influence of the School’s female staff. “We support female members of staff as role models. We have many excellent role models in the School”, he says.
The School's female staff members are certainly high achievers, and have been successful in attracting prestigious fellowships and awards.
Late last year, Dr Catherine Greenhill was awarded the 2013 UNSW Faculty of Science June Griffith Fellowship for Academic Women in Leadership. Australia and New Zealand Industrial and Applied Mathematics (ANZIAM) awarded its 2011 JH Michell Medal to Dr Frances Kuo, who is a recent ARC Queen Elizabeth II Research Fellow. This year, Dr Adelle Coster attracted an ARC Discovery Grant for her research which utilises mathematical modelling to understand the protein-protein interactions that are essential for all cellular functions.
The School of Mathematics and Statistics has also recently appointed two prominent female members to its Advisory Board: Dr Bronwyn Harch, Chief, CSIRO Mathematics, Informatics and Statistics; and Andrea Connell, Principal of Sydney Girls High School.
Dorothy Cheung, who received the School’s Girls Do The Maths Scholarship in 2011, is happy that she pursued maths at university - despite her mother’s initial concern that it is more of a “male” discipline.
To girls who are good at and enjoy mathematics, but are hesitant to pursue tertiary studies in maths, Dorothy says: “My advice is to do what you like; don’t let other factors influence you. If you study what you like, all the other factors - like the male bias - don’t really matter anymore”.
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