Girls worldwide are lagging behind boys in mathematics, with sexism and gender stereotypes among the root causes, according to a new report published by UNICEF.
Solving the equation: Helping girls and boys learn mathematics features new data analyses covering more than 100 countries and territories. The report finds that boys have up to 1.3 times the odds of obtaining mathematics skills than girls. Negative gender norms and stereotypes often held by teachers, parents, and peers regarding girls’ innate inability to understand mathematics are contributing to the disparity. This also undermines girls’ self-confidence, setting them up for failure, the report notes.
“Girls have an equal ability to learn mathematics as boys – what they lack is an equal opportunity to acquire these critical skills,” said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell. “We need to dispel the gender stereotypes and norms that hold girls back – and do more to help every child learn the foundational skills they need to succeed in school and in life.”
Learning mathematics skills in turn strengthens memory, comprehension, and analysis, in turn improving children’s ability to create, the report notes. Ahead of next week’s United Nations Transforming Education Summit, UNICEF warns that children who do not master basic mathematics and other foundational learning may struggle to perform critical tasks such as problem solving and logical reasoning.
An analysis of data from 34 low- and middle-income countries featured in the report shows that while girls lag behind boys, three-quarters of schoolchildren in grade 4 are not obtaining foundational numeracy skills. Data from 79 middle- and high-income countries show more than a third of 15-year-old schoolchildren have yet to achieve minimum proficiency in mathematics.
Household wealth is also a determining factor. The report notes that schoolchildren from the richest households have 1.8 times the odds of acquiring numeracy skills by the time they reach fourth grade than children from the poorest households. Children who attend early childhood education and care programmes have up to 2.8 times the odds of achieving minimum proficiency in mathematics by the age of 15 than those who do not.
The report also notes the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has likely further exacerbated children’s mathematics abilities. Moreover, these analyses focus on girls and boys who are currently in school. In countries where girls are more likely to be out of school than boys, the overall disparities in mathematics proficiency are most likely even wider.
UNICEF is calling on governments to commit to reaching all children with quality education. We are urging new effort and investment to re-enroll and retain all children in school, to increase access to remedial and catchup learning, to support teachers and give them the tools they need, and to make sure that schools provide a safe and supportive environment so all children are ready to learn.
“With the learning of an entire generation of children at risk, this is not the time for empty promises. To transform education for every child, we need action and we need it now,” said Russell.