Girls fall behind in math, burdened by gender stereotypes

Girls around the world lag behind boys in math. Sexism and gender stereotypes are among the main causes, according to a new report released Wednesday by the United Nations Children’s Fund.

The report Solve the equation: Help girls and boys learn math features new data analysis covering more than 100 countries and territories.

The paper concludes that boys are up to 1.3 times more likely to be proficient in math than girls.

Negative gender norms and stereotypes often perpetuated by teachers, parents, and peers about girls’ innate inability to understand mathematics contribute to this disparity. It also undermines girls’ self-esteem, setting them up for failure.the report says.

Equal ability, unequal opportunity

“Girls have the same ability as boys to learn mathematics, what they lack is equal opportunity to acquire these basic skills,” said UNICEF’s executive director.

“We need to break down the stereotypes and gender norms that hold girls back and do more to help every boy learn the critical skills he needs to succeed in school and in life,” said Catherine Russell.

Learning math skills, in turn, strengthens memory, comprehension and analysis while enhancing children’s creativitythe report says.

Ahead of next week’s UN Summit on Transforming Education, UNICEF is warning that children who do not master basic maths and other key learning skills may struggle to perform critical tasks such as problem solving and logical thinking.

UNICEF/Rindra Ramasomanana

Students taking advantage of remedial class at Soanierana Primary School, Madagascar, do their math exercises.

Despite gender differences, a widespread problem

An analysis of data from 34 low- and middle-income countries included in the report shows that while girls lag behind boys, three-quarters of fourth graders fail to acquire basic math skills.

Data from 79 high- and middle-income countries show that more than a third of 15-year-old students have not yet achieved minimum proficiency in mathematics.

Household wealth is also a determining factor.

The report found that students from the wealthiest households were 1.8 times more likely to acquire numeracy skills by fourth grade than children from the poorest households. Children who attend early childhood care and education programs are up to 2.8 times more likely to achieve minimum math skills by age 15 than those who do not.

Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic

The report also notes that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has likely further degraded children’s math abilities. Additionally, these analyzes focus on girls and boys who are currently in school.

In countries where girls are more likely to be out of school than boys, overall differences in math skills are likely to be even greater.

Against this backdrop, UNICEF calls on governments to commit to providing all children with quality education.

It also calls for new efforts and investment to get all children back to school and keep them, to increase access to remedial teaching and learning, to support teachers and give them the tools they need, and to ensure that schools provide a safe and supportive environment so that all children are prepared to learn.

With the education of an entire generation of children at risk, now is not the time to make empty promises. To transform education for all children, we must act, and we must act now,” Russell said.

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