All over the world, girls are behind in math regarding children, due to, among other root causes, sexism and gender stereotypes, according to a new report released today by UNICEF.
The paper, titled “Solving the equation: Helping girls and boys learn mathematics” (“Solve the equation: “Helping Girls and Boys Learn Maths”), includes new data analysis covering more than 100 countries and territories.
According to the report, boys are up to 1.3 times more likely than for girls to acquire math skills. Negative gender norms and stereotypes—often promoted by teachers, parents, and other children about girls’ lack of innate ability to understand math—contribute to this disparity. It also undermines girls’ self-esteem as it sets them up for failure.
“Girls are just as capable as boys of mastering mathematics. What they lack are the same opportunities to acquire these basic skills,” said Unicef’s executive director, Catherine Russell. “We must break down the stereotypes and gender norms that hold girls back, and we must redouble our efforts to ensure that every girl and boy has the critical skills they need to thrive in school and in life.”
According to the report, learning math skills in turn improves memory, comprehension and analysis, while enhancing children’s creativity. Ahead of next week’s Education Transformation Summit, UNICEF is warning that children who lack basic maths and other fundamental learning may struggle to perform basic tasks such as solving problems or following logical reasoning .
Analysis of data from 34 low- and middle-income countries included in the report shows that, in addition to girls lagging behind boys, three-quarters of students in 4th grade are not gaining basic math skills. On the other hand, data from 79 high- and middle-income countries show that more than a third of 15-year-olds have not yet reached the minimum level of proficiency in mathematics.
1.8 times more likely in wealthy households
Household wealth is also a determining factor. According to the paper, students from the wealthiest households are 1.8 times more likely to acquire numeracy skills by 4th grade than children from the poorest households. In addition, boys and girls who participate in early childhood care and education programs are up to 2.8 times more likely to achieve minimum math competency by age 15 than those who do not receive such education.
Covid has put additional strain on math skills
According to the report, the Covid-19 pandemic may have contributed to children’s math skills further deteriorating. Furthermore, these analyzes focus on girls and boys currently in school: in countries where girls are less likely to be in school than boys, overall differences in math skills are likely to be even larger.
Unicef urges governments to commit to providing all children with quality education. In this sense, he insists that they be made new efforts and investments to re-enroll and retain all children and girls in school, to expand access to remedial and catch-up classes, to support teachers and give them the tools they need, and to ensure that schools provide a safe and supportive learning environment for all girls and boys.
“The learning of an entire generation of boys and girls is at risk. This is not a time for empty promises: to transform early childhood education, we must act, and act fast,” said Russell.