Secondary mathematics as handmaiden to STEM occupations? The consequences for girls who love mathematics

Year: 2019

Author: Jaremus, Felicia, Gore, Jennifer, Prieto-Rodriguez, Elena, Fray, Leanne

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

The recognition of mathematics as the ‘critical filter’ to many male dominated and high status careers has driven more than four decades of research and interventions on girls’ underrepresentation in mathematics. Despite this attention, girls’ underrepresentation in school mathematics remains well-entrenched in many Western countries. In this paper we shed new light on this trend by analysing the mathematical experiences of an often-overlooked subgroup of girls – those who choose to participate in high-level mathematics during senior secondary school. Less analytical attention has been given to these girls because they are, in a participation sense, already successful. Drawing on semi-structured interviews with five girls who opted into advanced mathematics at four different New South Wales (NSW) schools we use a sociological identity lens to explore girls’ participation in high-level mathematics. We found that the girls constructed their mathematics participation in line with one of two subject positions namely, love of the subject or utility. The four girls participating for ‘love’ performatively established their mathematics identities in line with traditionally masculine discursive constructions of mathematicians – possessing mathematics brains and passion for the subject in its own right. Enabling these identities were repeated moments of recognition of their ‘mathematics brain’ from others. However, this recognition and their mathematics participation was not without consequence. The girls faced considerable pressure to ‘use’ their knowledge and ‘brains’ to pursue mathematically-intensive careers, which they perceived as largely undesirable, after school. In contrast, the fifth girl, whilst also constructing herself as mathematically gifted, rejected a total enjoyment of the subject. Instead, she utilised a ‘women in STEM’ discourse to position her participation as being a route to a secure, gender appropriate, and high paid career. Most significantly, this position held comparatively little consequence for her when compared to those simply participating for ‘love’. We argue that while the ‘critical filter’ and ‘women in STEM’ discourses open up new subject positions for girls to participate in high-level mathematics, they also marginalise those who participate for reasons other than career aspiration because they position secondary school mathematics as a handmaiden, only useful for its service, to STEM occupations. These findings raise questions about why girls who identify as ‘loving’ and being ‘naturally talented’ at mathematics do not necessarily desire mathematically-intensive careers and, more significantly, about the ways in which the ‘handmaiden’ discursive positioning of school mathematics can, and/or should, be shifted to be more welcoming to all girls.