Choices of Mathematics Courses in Year 12: How Horizontal Gender Inequality Reproduces Itself in the Comprehensive Education System of Australia

Monday, 11 July 2016: 10:45
Location: Hörsaal 47 (Main Building)
Oral Presentation
Joanna SIKORA, Australian National University, Australia
David PITT, Macquarie University, Australia
Many secondary schools in Australia epitomize comprehensive education in which large groups of mixed-ability students of diverse social backgrounds select to study subjects that best fit their vocational interests.  In this choice-oriented system Year 12 students do not have to study mathematics to pass their matriculation exam. If they elect to do so they can learn either very basic or advanced mathematics without jeopardising their chances of obtaining a high university entry rank. 

In this paper we analyse in detail the processes that lead some male and female students to choose to study Year 12 mathematics courses below their ability level. To this end we examine complete administrative data on Year 12 examinations in New South Wales, the state that is home to over 23% of all secondary students in the country. Data from over 135,000 students who sat for their matriculation exam between 2011 and 2014 are analysed to establish whether choosing courses below one’s mathematical ability level pays off with a higher university entry rank and if so, whether the benefit is greater for females than males. The paper is an attempt to highlight mechanisms related to student choices of secondary subjects that foster horizontal gender segregation or unintended ‘gender tracking’. This involves self-sorting of boys and girls into different fields of study which limits their later study and employment opportunities.

We argue that a significant part of this self-sorting takes place in the last three years of secondary schooling, and not much earlier, as is commonly assumed. We discuss policy options for addressing this type of gender inequality which seems pervasive in Australia but also in secondary schooling in other comprehensive education systems.