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Class and gender barriers for mathematics studies

Published: 16 September 2015

New research at Luleå University of Technology shows that class and gender are decisive factors in mathematics education in Sweden. The higher up the education scale, the smaller the percentage of women and people from disadvantaged environments.

- This affects the whole structure of society. For example, where do you find many women and few men? Well, in teaching and nursing programs. If we look instead at who makes money and holds power in society, it is people who studied mathematics-intensive programs, says Christina Sundqvist, graduate students in mathematics education at Luleå University.

Mathematics becomes more stereotype

In the licentiate thesis Who will become a mathematician? Christina Sundqvist examined equality in mathematics education in Sweden and the results are disappointing. Despite the fact that young women are performing at least as good as men many fall away when they start high school.

- This has partly to do with the fact mathematics becomes more and more stereotyped, the older students become. It then becomes coupled with masculinity and the number of female teachers and role models are greatly reduced from high school and up, says Christina Sundqvist, who is a trained teacher of mathematics and history.

Class Matters

The research results also show that students' class background is a crucial factor for successful studies. Christina Sundqvist emphasize here the importance of visualizing the problems.
- It could be something as simple as the language in the classroom. Most teachers use a kind of middle-class language that some children do not understand. To come about with a change then we must admit that the problem actually exists. All children should have the same opportunities regardless of gender and background and that is absolutely not the case today, but class is a sensitive issue and there are no simple solutions, says Christina Sundqvist.

Mathematics protrude

Equality Problems such as these are not exclusively characteristic of only mathematics but Christina Sundqvist says that the gap is bigger and more conspicuous in the mathematics field.

- It stands out in every way. For example, the number of doctoral students is 50/50 if you look across all topics, but in mathematics, instead, around 25-30 per cent women. This is obviously a problem. Not least given that virtually all status programs is heave on mathematics, says Christina Sundqvist and calls for greater focus on class and gender in teacher training.

- You have to try to make up for all this. It can be things like homework-clubs or mentoring but the most important is that we break the taboo and start talking about this openly.