Maths textbook suggests women are less competent than men

Problems in the OUP textbook for Edexcel GCSE Maths Foundation create impression that women are more likely than men to come up with incorrect answers to maths problems

Adi Bloom

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A GCSE maths textbook produced by a leading publisher suggests that women are worse at the subject than men.

The questions in the Oxford University Press textbook for an Edexcel GCSE imply that women are more likely than men to come up with incorrect answers to maths problems.

Sally McGill, a secondary maths teacher from Greater Manchester, conducted an analysis of the content of the current maths GCSE textbook for Edexcel GCSE Maths Foundation.

She focused on reasoning questions where pupils were required to confirm or disprove a statement. These questions asked whether the person named in the question was correct or incorrect – and required pupils to explain their answers.

“Both are valid forms of questioning and are not in themselves contentious,” Ms McGill said. “But the gender bias found within them is astounding.”

Questioning competence

In total, 157 such questions cast doubt on whether the person named in the question was doing the right thing.

Of these 157 questions, doubt was cast on the competence of 52 men, compared with 105 women. Pupils were therefore twice as likely to be asked question the judgement of a woman as they were to question the judgement of a man.

Ms McGill then looked at how often men and women were proven right in these questions. When men’s competence was questioned, they were proven right 44 per cent of the time. Women were proven right 41 per cent of the time.

"So not only does this book set the example that it is OK to question women more often, it also tells you that women are more likely to be wrong than men," she said.

Entrenched bias 

On other occasions, pupils were asked to identify the answer given to a problem as incorrect – and to explain why. Here, the incorrect answer was far more likely to be linked with a woman’s name than with a man’s.

In the 86 questions where the answer was incorrect, 62 per cent of the incorrect answers were attributed to women. By contrast, 38 per cent were attributed to men.

“Maths is a male-dominated subject,” Ms McGill said. “The bias against women is prevalent and well-documented – and has become entrenched in many different industries.

“The jokey, laddish culture is diminishing, but examples such as this textbook show that sexism is as institutionalised as racism was shown to be at the end of the last century. Perhaps it is time that we took it as seriously.”

'Insufficient evidence'

However, David Miles of the Mathematical Association questioned whether the bias shown in the textbook was a sign of sexism. He said it would be interesting to see whether the pattern was repeated in other maths textbooks and resources from the same publisher.

“If not, then this may be no more than an unfortunate coincidence,” he said. “Awarding bodies and educational publishers certainly have a responsibility not to reinforce negative stereotypes, but there simply isn’t sufficient evidence here to warrant an accusation of institutional sexism."

But he said he would expect the publisher to "address this disparity in the next print run and be mindful not to allow a repeat of this situation in the future”.

A spokesperson from Oxford University Press said: “At Oxford University Press we feel strongly about gender equality and are encouraged to see that this is such an important issue to people.

"In our materials for both teachers and pupils, we make every effort to include representations of both genders equally in the text and to use gender-neutral vocabulary wherever possible. We are always reviewing our materials and will  look into this specific issue in more detail.”

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Adi Bloom

Adi Bloom is Tes comment editor

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