According to Bangladesh’s socioeconomic structure, it has been usual for everyone to think girls are more fit for medical fields while boys are 'naturally' better at pursuing mathematical/engineering careers. The societal stereotyping and curriculum design of this country may have caused a severe level of math anxiety amongst the students, mostly girls.
For a deeper understanding, this writer -- a junior researcher working at the Department of Mathematics, University of Dhaka -- conducted a survey with an independent research team. Analyses of the respondents’ answers revealed the presence of higher levels of math anxiety among female students in comparison to their male counterparts.
This survey also considered the variation demonstrated between the responses of the two major classifications of education found in Bangladesh, the NCTB curriculum (Bangla Version, English Version) and the British Curriculum (English Medium).
Many female students were found to perceive the other medium of education as having greater expertise in mathematics than those studying in the same medium. At the same time, societal stereotypes in Bangladesh played a major role in instilling the fear of math among many female respondents.
As the effects of math anxiety can be particularly detrimental to a student, specifically in the arena of academic performance, lack of female role models in STEM fields, mental health, and learning enthusiasm, these findings may be deemed as discouraging.
This phenomenon posits a positive correlation between math anxiety and female representation in math-related careers in terms of Bangladesh’s socioeconomic situation and educational curriculum.
Math anxiety and the cause
In a sample of 132 Bangladeshi students (male: 66, female: 66) aged 14-25, it was found that 83.3% of total respondents have faced math anxiety at least once in their lives. When asked why this occurred, 45.5% agreed on a lack of math-related program participation, where 27.3% complained about the country's curriculum design, 15.2% believed mathematics is not for their individuality, and 12.1% indicated a lack of cooperation from their teachers. This finding facilitated the analysis and comprehension of the key factors of developing a fear of mathematics among students.
The typical Bangladeshi society has yet to adapt to the ideology that girls can also pursue mathematical careers. As a result, boys naturally overcome any potential difficulty or anxiety they face by indulging themselves in fun math activities and creative pursuits like playing chess or solving Rubik's cube. But, girls do not feel the need to engage in such activities as they are convinced that they will not need any such skills for their future careers.
Even females pursuing mathematical careers often face gender disparity from their colleagues’ opinions about their intellectual strength. As a result, a much better female performer faces difficulties than a much less competent male performer, creating a psychological barrier in the workplace environment.
Both male and female students were asked to give their point of view on societal stereotypes playing a key role in students’ fear of mathematical proficiency. 74.2% of the total believed societal stereotypes affect a student’s expertise in mathematics, where 19.7% of them proceeded to give a diplomatic answer by voting “I’m not sure”, and only 6.1% believed it does not have any impact on the questioned matter. This reflects the impact of socioeconomic factors on female STEM enrolments in Bangladesh.
Respondents were asked to dictate the reason for math anxiety from various options, where those who voted “Fault in curriculum designing” had 72.7% of voters coming from the NCTB curriculum. This reinforces the idea that NCTB curriculum students are frustrated over their current curriculum.
While those in the English medium can reap the benefits of math olympiads, interactive math programs, and training sessions, students in the Bangla medium lag behind, mostly deprived of opportunities to attend such programs and sessions.
Lack of female participation in IMO
Some of these opportunities can only be availed after paying a decent registration fee, a burden for most low-income family students of the NCTB curriculum. Due to the presence of such barriers, the representation of females attending a Bangla medium institution in platforms like BDMO (Bangladesh Math Olympiad), BDPhO (Bangladesh Physics Olympiad), BDBO ( Bangladesh Biology Olympiad), etc., is minimal.
48.5% of the female voters claimed their math anxiety is pivotal due to a lack of mathematical program participation. Only 37% of them have participated in the Mathematical Olympiad or similar competitions, and when asked about enjoyable math-related activities, only 12.9% of the females voted for math competitions. This indicates the effect of a societal overlook, creating an apathy for math-based programs' involvement of girls.
The participation of girls in math-related contests at the international level remains limited to the present day. According to the data of the Bangladesh Mathematical Olympiad (BDMO), the first Bangladeshi team that participated in the IMO (International Math
Olympiad) in 2005 consisted of only two female students. These two students, one of whom (Rafatul Faria) is currently pursuing a doctoral degree at Purdue University, also participated the following year.
Subsequently, students like Nazia Chowdhury also joined the team and secured a Bronze medal at the 2009 IMO. She later graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and is currently practising medicine in Singapore.
However, girls' participation in the IMO declined significantly after 2011. In the years that followed, Bangladesh participated with all-male teams. This trend was eventually broken when the Bangladesh team participated with Nuzhat Ahmed Disha- a student currently enrolled in the Viqarunnisa Noon School, who won a Bronze medal for Bangladesh at the 2023 IMO. However, the participation of female students at the regional and national levels is also scarce compared to male students.
This study is conducted in compliance with the socioeconomic culture of Bangladesh. The higher levels of math anxiety in female students, as found in the results of the research, can be exemplified in a plethora of ways. As Bangladesh’s half of the population covers females, their involvement in science and technology is necessary.
This study shows the students are aware of the key factors of this current situation, and proper mentoring and situational awareness can be the weapon to eradicate this major problem.
Students need humane mentors and role models; hence, proper networking and connectivity between students and teachers is necessary. The results can be seen from recent years as the increased participation in contests like IMO by students such as Nuzhat Ahmed Disha uplifts the prevalent social norms.