We must mind the maths gap for women

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The writer chairs the board of trustees at National Numeracy, a UK charity

We know the UK has a productivity problem. The gender pay gap is also well documented. A number of recent reports have identified career barriers for women that include pervasive gender stereotypes and a lack of representation of female entrepreneurs and role models. The 2019 Rose review concluded that were the UK to achieve the same rates of female entrepreneurship and business ownership as our “best in class” peers, it could add £200bn to our gross domestic product.

But what if this picture is connected to the persistent gap in numeracy skills and confidence afflicting women and girls?

The OECD’s Pisa international education rankings show that on average, over the past 20 years, the UK has remained among the worst countries for the gap in maths performance between 15-year-old boys and girls. The situation is not improving. In the two most recent rounds of Pisa rankings (2022 and 2018), the UK has fallen into the bottom 10 per cent.

This gender gap at 15 years old has — unsurprisingly — contributed to the substantial numeracy gap we see in the country’s adults today, with widespread evidence showing it negatively affects career options, financial health and general wellbeing. So why is this such a tough nut to crack for the UK — and for others suffering the same problems, such as Italy, Peru and the US?

What can these countries learn from others? There seems no immediate common approach among the diverse countries that show a negligible maths gender gap at 15 years old — Kazakhstan, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, South Korea, Greece, Turkey, Cambodia, Norway and Sweden.

The range of countries doing better also shows that the gender gap in maths cannot be explained by the innate ability of girls and boys. Instead, it suggests that social and cultural influences in countries with a wide gap reinforce stereotypical attitudes and behaviours. These expectations exist in learners but also in teachers, parents and carers.

A comparison of contrasting Pisa 2022 results in Finland, which has a minimal gender maths gap, and neighbouring Estonia, which otherwise did well in the study, concludes: “Gender-related disparities in achievement thus appear to be neither innate nor inevitable, but have devastating effects on a person’s overall feeling of safety, professional and personal flourishing.” 

In the UK, the critical age appears to be between the ages of 10 and 15, when the gender gap in maths triples. Fewer girls stick with science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects after GCSEs or go on to Stem careers. By the age of 15, girls are less likely to believe they can do maths and science or enrol in technical programmes and internships.

National Numeracy research provides some illuminating details. Women are twice as anxious as men about maths. They are about 66 per cent more likely to be put off a job listed as “using data and numbers” and disproportionally affected by negative experiences of maths at school. An European Investment Bank study in the Netherlands showed that women disproportionately answer financial knowledge questions with “do not know”, even when they have the correct answer.

The cultural problem can also be seen in recent analysis of self-evaluation. For maths and science tasks, women consistently describe their own performance less favourably than the equally performing men do. However, this gap does not apply in evaluating tasks such as reading. The research finds that this gap in self-promotion leads to women being significantly less likely to earn as much or be hired than equivalently skilled male peers.

What can be done? The OECD concludes that the key to narrowing gender gaps in education and employment is awareness of the problem. A new National Numeracy task force on gender has just started work, convening employers from Capital One, Barclays and Scottish Widows to NHS England, Mumsnet and Oliver Wyman. The group intends to address attitudes and confidence-building, the role of employers, the need for visible role models and the generational skills deficit.

The potential upside is huge. Productivity and growth have been shown to benefit from developing talent across the working population — especially from groups who were previously typecast in the economy. But we would also expect a boost to individual wellbeing and knock-on effects such as increased female entrepreneurship.

This is not just a matter for women: the benefits of an inclusive approach to numeracy would be felt across all the economies afflicted by this problem.

Video: Why the UK has a problem with maths | FT Film

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