Are Issues of Equity in Mathematics the Same across Racial, Ethnic, Class, and Gender Boundaries?

by Jay Hill

Minorities in mathematics have traditionally been at a disadvantage for various reasons. Lack of social support, scarcity of role models, limited access to resources, and differing world views all contribute to low mathematics achievement in most (if not all) minority groups. Although, when looked at from a general perspective, it seems that obstacles to success experienced by ethnic minorities and lower SES members are the same as those experienced by women in mathematics, solutions appropriate for the former are not necessarily appropriate for the latter.

A strong historical argument can be made that advances in the rights of one minority group lead to advances in the rights of another. Such links can be drawn between women and African-Americans in the past and, more currently, those same minorities and homosexuals in the present. It is not uncommon to hear the same arguments from one group reiterated for another and, hence, when a barrier is brought down for one group, similar barriers fall for others. But is this the case when it comes to mathematics education?

Certainly, by increasing a teacher's awareness of her or his own biases and actions in the classroom towards ethnic and cultural differences and by working to increase teacher understanding of varying world views held by different groups, the classroom can become a more inviting place for all people -- not just ethnic minorities, but women as well. However, this conclusion is based on the assumption that teachers understand that there exists a culture of women. This means a full acceptance that women have a different view of the world (and, consequently, mathematics) that is as valid as world views held by men. It is easy to argue that many different cultures have contributed to mathematics, but because mathematics as a field has primarily been created by men and for men (even in the various different cultures, acceptance of more feminine views may be difficult in that they may change the way in which the very nature of the subject is viewed.

Suzanne Damarin, in her article, "Gender and Mathematics from a Feminist Standpoint," points to the rise of feminist views of mathematics as a challenge to the "malestream" mathematics taught in schools and used in research. This challenge calls for and has given rise to different research methods, modes of thinking about mathematics, and emphases within the mathematics classroom. According to Damarin, "the feminist-standpoint idea allows for a multiplicity of truths, none of them complete, and finds most valuable those investigations that begin with the lives of women" (p. 248). This view could be generalized to aid all minorities by simply inserting "...begin with the lives of Latino/Latina-Americans" or "...African-Americans" etc., but each of these examples is group specific and would require different curricula designed for each of the target groups.

Stanic and Hart break these groups down even further, noting that none of these groups is independent and each individual is affected by membership in many varied groups (gender, ethnic, and SES), not to mention the massive effects of individual differences. In "Attitudes, persistence, and mathematics achievement: Qualifying race and sex differences," Stanic and Hart use case studies from a classroom of 17 students to point out how complex the interactions of group membership on an individual can be. There sample size was far too small to make generalizations about any given "group," but the strong variance in their measurements of attitude, achievement, persistence and correlation between these measures showed how membership in one group does not necessarily determine how one thinks or acts. Thus, it is logical to assume that solutions designed for aiding a given group might not be applicable to a given individual due to other influences acting upon that individual... forces such as concurrent-membership in another group (i.e.: women).

If this is the case, then it would seem that solutions for a particular ethnic minority may not be appropriate for women. They may not even be appropriate for another ethnic minority. Most African-Americans do not have to deal with the same language barriers as many Asian-Americans or Latino/Latina-Americans. Likewise, white women may not deal with the same problems as Asian women and those problems that are similar may not call for the same solution. There are so many forces at work that to ignore the influence of gender and to focus on ethnic or SES group membership would be a disservice to all, particularly when one must note that gender is a factor that cuts across all races, ethnicities and social classes.


Damarin, S. K. (1995). Gender and mathematics crom a feminist standpoint. In Secada, W. G. (Ed.). New Directions for Equity in Mathematics Education., pp. 242-257. Campbridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Stanic, G. M. A. and Hart, L. E. (1995). Attitudes, persistence, and mathematics achievement: Qualifying race and sex differences. In Secada, W. G. (Ed.). New Directions for Equity in Mathematics Education., pp. 242-257. Campbridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

If you have any information you think might be helpful or if you have any questions or comments, please email me, Jay Hill.

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