Gender, Sexuality, and Perceived Differences in Mathematics Ability


In “Unpacking the Male Superiority Myth”, Leyva defines differences in sex, gender, race, and ethnicity, and how they have historically played a role in participation and achievement in mathematics. Fluid and individualistic definitions of gender, masculinity, and mathematical ability require new research on perceived differences.  


Leyva reviews and reframes past literature on mathematics as a “gendered domain” (Leyva, 2017). While he references queer theory in defining gender, he does not do so in defining the expectations of masculinity.  In terms of mathematical ability, he defines only two subcategories – knowledge and participation (Leyva, 2017). I will argue that narrow conceptions of both masculinity and mathematical ability limit the conversation and may further reinforce historic gender stereotypes. 

Masculinity vs. Gender

Leyva reveals how students self-perceived expectations in mathematics are strongly influenced by both their peers and their teachers (Leyva, 2017) and that participating in mathematics is seen as a “masculine” activity (Leyva, 2017). He goes so far as to break down the idea of “masculinity” into the more traditional gender stereotype versus the more modern “technophile” (Leyva, 2017). Notwithstanding the fact that the cited research almost exclusively applies binary definitions to masculinity and femininity, it does not address how the participants themselves view masculinity. Young women (Pascoe, 2012) and gay men (Sánchez et al., 2009) have widely disparate views on masculinity and, by extension, how mathematics relates to masculinity. Both groups have a wide array of feelings and desires (both positive and negative) about masculinity and about mathematics. In addition, many young women and men are fluid in both their feelings about and within masculine identifications (Pascoe, 2012). The question that has not been well addressed is how the findings of these studies come together (Damarin & Erchick, 2010). By using a stereotypical definition of masculinity based on historically dominant cis-white-male gender norms instead of the subjects’ own views, researchers are by definition reinforcing those stereotypes.

What is Mathematical Ability?

Similar to the definition of gender, the definition of mathematical ability has changed over time and now takes many forms (Damarin & Erchick, 2010). Historically, mathematics curricula and tests of knowledge have been designed by men to be taken by men. Until recently, mathematical ability has been viewed as a male trait (Leyva, 2017, Damarin & Erchick, 2010). However, many new models of “knowing” in relation to mathematics are being studied, in particular using social constructivist models instead of purely statistical measures (Damarin & Erchick, 2010). If the definition of “mathematical ability” is changing, then the research based on teaching and appraising mathematical ability must also change. 


It is clear that Mathematics is a “gendered domain.” However, using historical definitions of masculinity and mathematical ability do little to advance equity in mathematics education. As the definitions of gender and sexuality become more affirming, and what we understand as mathematical ability becomes more inclusive, broad areas of research are opening up to understand these intersections and push the boundaries of equity in mathematics.


Damarin, S., & Erchick, D. B. (2010). Toward Clarifying the Meanings of “Gender” in Mathematics Education Research. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 41(4), 310–323. JSTOR.

Luis A. Leyva. (2017). Unpacking the Male Superiority Myth and Masculinization of Mathematics at the Intersections: A Review of Research on Gender in Mathematics Education. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 48(4), 397–433. JSTOR.

Pascoe, C. J. (2012). Look at My Masculinity! (2nd ed., pp. 115–155). University of California Press; JSTOR.

Sánchez, F. J., Greenberg, S. T., Liu, W. M., & Vilain, E. (2009). Reported Effects of Masculine Ideals on Gay Men. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 10(1), 73–87.

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