Girls, maths and “intelligence”

By Abida Parveen

“Girls are sensible but not intelligent,” said the mathematics teacher in whose class female students remained invisible. I was observing a secondary level class in a private school in Karachi to see how gender is enacted in classroom, which was a requirement of my masters’ course.  In a class of thirty-five students, boys seemed to dominate all the time, answering and raising questions, challenging the teacher, reaching the whiteboard for mathematical challenges and attracting the teacher’s attention by being restless.

Why were the sensible girls, as they are stereotyped by teachers, not intelligent for this particular class then?  What made the sensible ones so invisible in this class? What was in mathematics that made girls deaf and dumb? These are some of the questions that require critical consideration on part of teachers, educationists and policy makers because this is not the belief of one teacher but many around the world because researches in different contexts suggest ‘girls’ problem in mathematics’ as universal problem.

I was observing a class of thirty-five students with equal almost number of girls and boys. Girls occupied all the front seats while the teacher, a female, was standing beside the white board. She explained an equation and constantly looked at those students who seemed not to pay any attention. Interestingly, these restless students were all boys while girls sat still, looking at the teachers all the time, nodding their heads in assurance that they are listening to her. I was sure that the restless boys were going to suffer in the end for not paying attention and, hence losing an important part of the lesson. I thought that if this was their practice in every class, then for sure, they had been missing a lot, so their understanding of the subject has to be nil.

Ironically, I had a different realization after a few minutes. The seemingly not attentive boys started raising questions. The teacher had to explain again. One of them challenged the teacher saying there is another better way of solving the equations and got a ‘you are great’ look from his fellow boys. Another question was written on the board and students were expected to solve the question. Here again the restless boys were dominating by giving most of the answers. Even some of those who seemed absorbed in other work were able to answer the teachers’ questions. In the end it was again a boy who went to solve a question on the board. Hence, the paradox was that the obedient and well-behaved girls, as the teacher characterized them in the interview later, remained ignored, invisible and inactive.

So the restless nature of the boys went in their favour because they had to be watched constantly by the teacher, as she asked them again and again taking their names one by one. This has an impact on their motivation and learning. Researches supports this view (Nelofer Halai, 2007) by stating that difference in behavior of boys and girls in mathematics classroom would lead to difference in classroom ethos and in relationship with teacher. Motivational strategies would facilitate boys’ learning while no such effort would be done for girls because they are expected to follow.

Girls being ‘passive learners’ is true of the class I was observing for boys received all the attention. Teacher knew their names and motivated them for learning through assurance and re-assurance. Girls, sitting in the front rows, very close to teacher remained unseen. Though still as statue and nodding all the time as if programmed to follow, not to question, neither to move or challenge the authority, while the authority was submissive in front of those who challenged power. Hence, power was visibly in control of boys.

The Mathematics class was a real replica of our society.  The motherly nature of the teacher had all her attention on the privileged ones, the boys. Girls, as is the practice, followed silently, submissive to power which they willingly seemed to bestow upon their male counterparts. Boys were the God of the class. So the tradition of the society was in practice in the mathematics classroom.

Another practice of the society quite visible in this setting is that mobility, curiosity, the ability to question authority and challenge power is something that goes in favour of those who show the courage to do so. As women in the society suffered until they learnt to challenge authority, so can the passive girls in mathematics classroom learn to become as restless as are the less obedient boys. By saying this I am not proposing rebellion nor do I favour disobedience, but girls can question the teacher’s biased behavior towards them and by doing so, they should make an effort to show their worth by showing that they are equally capable to be good mathematicians. Equally important is the fact that women should make use of the limited exposure they are subject to, raise curiosity, learn to question and look at things through different angles in order to learn to get to a solution. This should start from the mathematics classroom, spread to many mathematics classrooms and colour all the dark corners of the society where women sit still, submissive, timid and shy to get fake medal of honour, which those in authority and power have coined to mislead talent and hold the treasure of knowledge and power in possession.

So to be restless is to be good; to be curious is to find ways through a problem; to dare to challenge is to attract attention; to raise voice is to ask for share in power and to do all this is to become a good mathematician. Boys have long been nurtured for this challenge by the highly caring mothers of the society and, therefore, they are getting benefit of going smoothly through mathematical problems. It’s high time that girls should learn the skill and steer their way through the complications of mathematics and the world.

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  1. Good research work, I feel being sensible is more important than being impatient and intelligent! Sensibility is the sign of matureness .

  2. Interesting piece taken to explain the phenomena of ‘Women being called not intelligent’. It really takes us back to see why men are considered to be more intelligent than women? Many say that it shows how the brains of both- men and women- have evolved overtime. Historically men were confronted with many tough and life threatening problems (example: hunter gatherers) that were needed to be solved on daily basis which forced them to use all their mental capabilities to devise strategies in answering the problems. while on the other hand women were engaged in relatively simpler tasks of domestic works, i.e, child raising etc. Thus the demanding and tough jobs helped men in building a range of cognitive abilities which includes: reasoning, problem solving, general knowledge. that is why, even thousands eras late, men continue to outnumber women in the field of maths and physics.

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