Maths - The gender divide

Will women ever be faster than men? Maths can find the answer

Alice Onion

Bowland Maths introduces a sequence of three Olympics-themed lessons for key stage 3 pupils. Until 1964, there was no race longer than 200m for women - and they had not been allowed to compete at all until 1928. Men are still considered to be "bigger, stronger, faster". But performances have recently been improving faster in some women's events than in men's.

The first lesson in the sequence poses the question "Are women improving faster than men?" There is no prescribed answer. Pupils decide for themselves what mathematics to use and it gets them thinking about solving a problem or answering a question in a mathematical way.

Pupils are given data about gold medal performances over many years in six events - the 100m freestyle swimming and five athletics events - for both men and women. They choose one event and work in groups to consider how they can address the question. Some pupils may choose to explore the 100m or 400m races, while others may be more comfortable considering the long jump, shot-put or javelin throw, where improvement over the years is represented by increasing rather than decreasing values.

All pupils will be expected to make decisions that will require mathematical thinking. Most will think of plotting the data on to graphs from which it is easy to see that the data are "messy", that they have outliers and that there are no neat trends. How to deal with such uncertainties is all part of mathematics.

Using their scatter plots, pupils can explore ways to distinguish trends. To see what might happen in future years, they will recognise the need to extend the lines of "best fit" for women and men beyond the years covered by the given data. These extended lines will help them to answer the question of whether women's performance (such as that of the US athlete Carmelita Jeter, above) could eventually overtake men's.

When the groups have reached their conclusions, they can debate what makes "good evidence". Then they can use their graphs to predict gold medal performances in London 2012.

Alice Onion is a visiting senior research fellow at King's College London. These Olympics materials and others are available from

What else?

Try davib's lesson analysing Olympic medal tables and ask pupils if they can find a more accurate way of defining the overall winning country.

The Olympic Games are not just about sport; business is an important feature, too. Kentishman's Profit and Percentages lesson gets pupils to work out merchandise maths.

In the forums

Are mathematics textbooks declining in use? Maths teachers discuss the limitations of textbooks and talk about what the ideal one would include.

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Alice Onion

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