I can’t remember where I saw it but the fact that math books portray way more men than women in the problems offered seems like a real truth that I had simply never given any thought to. I knew instantly that I would be digging into this problem and doing something about it. What I didn’t know was the statement that I decided to make.
To begin with, I ran to my own book in my classroom, Digits Accelerated Grade 7 by Pearson to take a look at what I could find. The online lessons do have gender balance in a few notable ways, their video hosts are 50/50 gendered, yet the animated creatures most all seem to be male gendered including robots, animals and a farmer or two.
The paper book part of the math program seems to be far more male, although gender and people are often avoided altogether. In one typical lesson, there are 20 questions, four of which include male names and one has a female name. That is the surface of the issue, a 3/1 ratio favoring boy students being able to see themselves. Going deeper, I noticed that one question uses the pronoun “he” and the challenge question suggests that 70% of a fictional company is made up of men. This brings the total of mele centric questions to 5/1 favoring boys. One more add on shows the context of a few problems to be male oriented talking about little league and the next question is about Gridiron football, both are boy-dominated sports in America. The final informal count suggesting a 7/1 bias towards boys and only 12.5% of the gendered questions representing girls in any way.
Looking beyond one lesson in this math book, I randomly selected 20 more lessons of the 152 in this book. If you are a math teacher you are also recognizing the problem that 152 lessons provides. Anyhow, in the next 20 lessons that I surveyed at random, the ratio of boy to girl examples is still eye popping at nearly 70% to 30%. Almost all of which rely on stereotypes – racially white, gender normative situations.
So, the imbalance is clear but there does seem to be some progress. The women represented by the book are positive role models, veterinarians and the like. Also, the names and situations appear to try to represent people of many different backgrounds. The progress over a book that would have been printed 20 years ago is real — just not enough.
I can expect that this book isn’t unique and that my school undoubtedly is stocked with male dominated texts and a student passing through my school will see far more male representations in math. Therefore, should I work meticulously to create a real 50/50 gender parody in my course I still will not have made a real dent in the total arc of a student’s experience. I needed to consider doing something much more impactful, something that sends a real message.
I have total control on my lesson design and assessment design. Every year, I change the names I use in my tests to include my students. It’s a fun way to customize the tests and to help show students I listen to and notice them as individuals. So, I am used to changing the names, but I have never used flexibility to address a problem. Now is that time and I am going to rewrite my tests for next year to be 100% female names. I will also need to consider how to evaluate the situations I represent and look to make that as female as I can. Yes, I want this to stand out and be noticeable. I want students to ask about it or mention to their classmates what they are noticing and what they think about it.
I announced my intention to make this change to a classroom full of students as we were discussing gender bias in an advisory class format. The reaction of the boys in the room was absolute horror and quite loud. The girls had two choices in the classroom, watch their reaction quietly or to push back. There was some of both from the girls and the conversation was productive. It was particularly helpful for me to see how students would react. This is where the real work will need to be done. I will need to be ready for and prepare some stats, facts and perspectives for students to deal with this, to learn from a 100% female written test or lesson. By students dealing with it, I mean the boys of course. I need to be good at helping them see the bias that exists, how they have benefited from it and how their awareness without feeling threatened.
Ultimately, I am designing the testing/learning experience to address a problem very directly. I have always designed for learning content but I have never designed to deal with a deficit in their experience. This is a first for me to design with a different intent.