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Gender Inequalities in Mathematics Teaching Essay

Mathematics as other science fields is considered to be a male-dominated sphere. This is well captured by Fennemma (2000) who asserts that girls believe that maths and sciences are purely for white males – this belief is also held true by educators. Fennemma (2000) asserts that the mathematic educators legitimize the perception that girls and boys are not the same when it comes to the learning of Mathematics. This paper seeks to look at how the sociological theories of

Bourdieu, Symbolic Interactionism and Feminism are used to explain the gender inequalities and gender dominance in the teaching of mathematics. They are applied to the scenario in which a male student repeatedly makes sexual remarks on a female student.

Pierre Bourdieu (1977) developed the sociological concepts of social and cultural capital. Social capital is defined to consist of social relationships that are developed in networks. The person must understand its structure as well as the way it works. The person must then know how to sustain and use these networks. Bourdieu (1984) emphasizes that social networks must be constructed and then skilfully maintained in order for the actor to utilize their resources.

This is well illustrated in this scenario. The student is a member of the male group in the class. He needs to forge relationships with the rest as well as to get resources for learning and for the sustenance of his social life. This is the maximization of resources. The male student has understood the network and how it works. So, it acts by asserting its dominance. This is because it mainly consists of male students. He is, therefore, asserting the working style of the group in the use of sexual remarks. The sexual remark is a way of propagating the network style of group dominance.

Cultural capital is the next component. This means that knowledge of behavior that promotes success emanates from the cultural beliefs of the person who stands out of the line and might have inadequate behavior. This is passed on by the family. The dominant culture and its language are used to teach these values. Cultural capital is applied to create social inequalities.

The scenario replicates cultural capital. The student has grown up understanding that he is superior by virtue of being male. The family structure propagates this belief. He, therefore, has institutionalized it. He is asserting this in the classroom by his use of language. The use of language is one of the components of cultural capital that create social inequalities. He makes the sexual remarks in order to put the lady in her place and assert his superiority.

Griffin (1997) propagates a theory of explaining dominance in society under cultural capital. This is what he calls the mute culture. The dominant person in society is able to retain his position and enjoy its privileges. This is what happens in the maths classroom scenario. The male student is asserting his expected role set by society. The classroom scenario is a conducive environment. There is only one female student, that is why her male peer is asserting his dominance as he seeks to enjoy his leading position by making sexual remarks on her. This is to assert his position and also to enhance the mute culture. He says she is expected to keep quiet.

The theory of symbolic interaction, as defined by Blumer (1969), is the process by which individuals form meanings through their interaction. The theory has three components, which include meaning, language and thought. These three factors make up a person’s identity and are responsible for his/her successful socialization in the community. The principle we will look at here is meaning.

Meaning in symbolic interactions is defined as follows: people react and socialize towards another human being based on what perception and meanings are given to those individuals or items. This is what takes place in this scenario. The male student’s remarks are his assertion of the perception of the female student. She is viewed by him as a weaker party. This is why, the disrespectful, demeaning and disparaging remarks are made on her. The next element of his remarks is the view of the female being only a sexual object in society. This is captured by the sexual remarks.

The student here is reacting to an aspect of symbolic interactions as expounded by Dewey. He was of the view that an individual associated with and defined by a certain belief should conduct oneself according to the pattern of behavior his culture poses on him/her. Thus, he is aware of how one is supposed to act and can avoid undesired consequences. The last component is to choose a behavior that gives the intended outcome (Stryker, 1981).

The subject here is a female student. Her male peer is now moving to the next level in a thinking process, such as identifying how to conduct oneself. The male undermines her because she is a female – that is why the proper action which according to him, he is to do is to give a sexual remark that puts her in her place being a person of little importance. The last two parts of the thinking process are well illustrated in this scenario.

The thinker identifies alternative conduct and its repercussions and does not do it. He then defines what conduct would give the intended results. The student here perceives the fact that if he makes a complimentary remark, such as praising female student’s intellectual capability or work done well, in their mathematics class, he will go against the culture of male dominance. He will, therefore, draw ridicule on him, and face contempt and reprimand from his fellow male peers. He rejects that line of action. The correct conduct will be to exert his dominance as expected by society, and the only way to do this is by making a sexual remark to demean the other party who is a female.

Subjective symbolism is also influenced by the thinking of Cooley (1902). He is of the view that people are developed in primary groups, and this group thinking promotes stereotypes of sexuality. The first type of society is a patriarchal male one, while the second is that of women; however, it is a patriarchal society, the last are merely sexual objects.

Language is the next important component of symbolic interaction, which is seen in a description of the person’s sexual views and learning process in a group. This influences the person’s use of language when it comes to sexuality. Eder, Evans, and Parker (1995) explained how the language of middle school children showed their naivety, gender inequality and the negative perception of female sexuality. Gecas and Libby (1976) express the view that language is seldom objective. Language captures one’s attitudes and perceptions, thus sexual language conveys the speaker’s perception of sexuality and the values he upholds. The student in this scenario is actualizing his language use. Another viewpoint is that by his language us, he is to show his dominion and subdue a female. The way to do that is by demeaning and making her realize his values and worldview (Gecas & Burke, 1995). By using sexual remarks, he sees the female as a sexual object.


Blumer, H. (1969). Symbolic interactionism: Perspective and method. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Bourdieu, P. (1977). Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction. New York: Oxford University Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. London: Routledge.

Cooley, C. H. (1902). Human Nature and the Social Order. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction.

Eder, D., Evans, C., & Parker, P. (1995). School talk: Gender and adolescent culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Fennema, E. (2000). Gender and Mathematics: What Is Known and What Do I Wish Was Known? Detroit. In the Fifth Annual Forum of the National Institute for Science Education. Detroit: Wisconsin Centre for Education.

Gecas, V., & Burke, P. J. (1995). Self and identity. In K.S. Cook, G.A. Fine, & J.S. House (Eds.), Sociological perspectives on social psychology (pp. 41-67). Boston, Massachusetts: Allyn and Bacon

Gecas, V, & Libby, R. (1976). Sexual behaviour as symbolic interaction. The Journal of Sex Research, 12(1), 33-49.

Griffin, E. (1997). A first look at communication theory. New York: The McGraw-Hill Companies.

Stryker, S. (1981). Symbolic interactionism: A social structural version. Menlo Park, CA: Benjamin/Cummings.

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