What enrolment trends reveal about male and female participation in mathematics: A comprehensive analysis of NSW HSC enrolment data

Year: 2017

Author: Jaremus, Felicia, Gore, Jennifer, Lloyd, Adam, Fray, Leanne, Prieto, Elena

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Australian analyses of senior secondary school participation rates in mathematics have consistently identified the underrepresentation of girls in the more demanding secondary mathematics subjects (e.g. Kennedy, Lyons & Quinn, 2014). Recognition of this pattern underpins higher education policy that identifies the participation of 'women in non-traditional areas of study' as an equity target group. While differential enrolment of males and females in high level mathematics confirms the importance of such an equity target, and of exploring ways to make a difference, less analytic attention has been given to how mathematics enrolments have changed over time and how they compare to enrolment patterns across the full range of senior secondary school subjects. Recognising that students choose from a broad range of subjects, this paper seeks a nuanced account of girls' relative participation in high level mathematics. Anchored in an analysis of NSW data on Higher School Certificate (HSC) enrolments, using raw enrolment figures as a proportion of total candidature, we investigated girls' participation in mathematics in relation to boys over the period 1991 to 2016 and compared these figures with enrolments in a broad range of other senior secondary subjects. Our analysis confirmed the persistent underrepresentation of girls, relative to boys, in intermediate and advanced mathematics, since at least 1991; a result that aligns with well-established trends identified in other studies. Fresh insights emerging from our analysis were: (1) a greater decline in the proportion of boys than girls enrolling in advanced mathematics, mostly during the earlier years (1991 - 2006); (2) a declining proportion of both boys and girls enrolling in a range of other Category A subjects, including advanced and intermediate English; and (3) static differences between girls and boys in enrolment in most Category A subjects across the last two decades. These results highlight that the underrepresentation of girls in both high level mathematics and in other subjects that have traditionally been male-dominated in senior secondary school remains an intractable issue in NSW and that gendered enrolment patterns characterise most subject areas. We argue that new and innovative initiatives are required if a more diverse workforce in fields requiring high level mathematics, such as science and engineering, is to be achieved. Moreover, the pipe line of both male and female students into these (and other) fields, evident in student enrolment patterns, signals the need to consider policy, curricular and pedagogical strategies toward re-dressing these trends.