- Female Mathematicians as Role Models for All Students
Girls' and women's dispositions, performance, and participation in mathematics have received significant attention in recent decades. Nevertheless, females still perform below males on the mathematics portion of standardized tests, such as the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) (Institute of Education Sciences), and they attain fewer mathematics degrees than males at all higher-education levels (Institute of Education Sciences). Further, they account for only one-fourth of workers classified into "Computer and Mathematical Occupations" (Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Occupational"), the third-highest paying of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' twenty-two job categories (Highlights). One way to address these lingering imbalances is to provide female role models in mathematics for both girls and boys.
In keeping with the Equity Principle promoted by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, it is important for teachers to infuse information about historical and contemporary female mathematicians into mathematics instruction. Leah McCoy presents activities for having young women work with successful historical female figures in mathematics. She notes, "Because female students are not aware of female mathematicians and scientists, they may internalize a belief that mathematics is not appropriate for women" (125). In this paper, I share broad ideas and extensive resources for supporting secondary teachers—as well as college mathematics instructors to a large degree—in this effort. These foundational approaches and resources are intended to serve as a launching point for more specific, teacher-selected and -developed activities.
In addition to the strategies shared below, a valuable class discussion can focus on reasons why female mathematicians were few in number compared with males, as well as why they have been given scant attention in many historical accounts of the development of mathematics. (See Kelley in the resource list, in addition to the stories of individual women within other entries on the list; also consult Bossé and Hurd, and Kunoff.) Both females and males should understand familial, societal, and institutional barriers so that they do not perceive women's absence as a lack of ability. [End Page 162]
Strategies for Including Information About Female Mathematicians
Numerous approaches may be used to include information about female mathematicians in the mathematics classroom. Resources provided at the end of this paper can help teachers implement many of these suggestions.
Invite guest speakers to address the class.
Women and men in mathematics-related careers can share their thoughts and experiences regarding reasons they entered the field, obstacles they overcame in relation to their career path, the type of work they do on a daily basis, practical information (e.g., about pay and benefits), and positive and negative aspects of their jobs. Presentations can involve various individuals over time or a single guest panel and should allow time for pertinent questions from the class.
Show films about female mathematicians.
Films that profile females in mathematics related careers can be shown in class. Existing commercial films are both rare and somewhat dated (see resource list). An alternative is to have students make their own film of local female mathematicians, or an even mix of males and females, by filming them at work and/or during interviews. This would also make a nice class project for a technology class or club to produce for mathematics classroom use.
Have students study one or more mathematicians and share information learned.
Names of historical and/or contemporary female and male mathematicians can be randomly distributed to students to research. Another option is to have students interview local individuals who work in mathematics-related careers. Selected methods of disseminating summarized information include written or oral reports, class newsletters, bound booklets, children's books, web sites, or interpretive performances in character. Audiences might include other classes of various ages, parents, or community groups.
Infuse information about women mathematicians and their work into relevant course content.
Contributions of female mathematicians can be woven naturally into pertinent course topics. In algebra, for example, students may learn or investigate why Emmy Noether is considered to be the founder of modern abstract algebra. Students might also engage in activities related to these mathematicians' work (for ideas, see the two Perl entries in the resource list).