Stop being stupid and keeping women out of math

I work at the University of Guelph where the students in the math major are close to half female, over 50% roughly as often as under. This is spectacularly unusual. A big reason for this is that very few students come to Guelph to study math. Our majors transfer into math out of other majors for a number of reasons. In this post I want to look at the issue of the mathematical ability of women and their participation in math.

It is important to remember that the potential to do math is only the first requirement for being skilled in math. It also means that oppression of innumeracy, like many other forms of oppression, falls more harshly on women and I’m against that. I will start with the following facts I’ve gleaned from the literature.

  1. The average performance of all women in math is slightly worse that the average performance of all men in math.
  2. The performance in the “6 sigma” region, people that are really good at math, shown no gender difference. It shows a gender imbalance, which is different and which I hope will change.
  3. If we look at “gifted” students in high school, women are more likely to have multiple gifts, men are more likely to show a single gift.
  4. There is a strong cultural stereotype which has several forms ranging from “women can’t do math” to “math is not feminine.” This one turns out to be killer.

A recent study L’eggo My Ego: Reducing the Gender Gap in Math by Unlinking the Self from Performance by Shen Zhang, Toni Schmader, and William M. Hall published in Self and Identity reported a beautifully simple experiment that illuminates an effect of the cultural stereotypes about women in math.

“In the main study, we manipulated whether performance was linked to the self by asking both men and women to complete a math test using
either their real name or a fictitious name. Women who used a fictitious name, and thus had their self unlinked from the math test, showed significantly higher math performance and reported less
self-threat and distraction, relative to those who used their real names. Men were unaffected by the manipulation. These findings suggest that women’s impaired math performance is often due to the threat of confirming a negative stereotype as being true of the self.”

In short, if women took a math test anonymously they got higher scores. This was substantially because being good at math is perceived as a bad thing for women. This result fills me with a sense of fizzing, bubbling frustration. If you don’t want people to know you have a talent, the chance you will get help developing that talent is much lower. The chance you will choose to spend time with your talent it is much lower. The chance you will receive recognition, awards, and scholarships drops to one of those numbers near zero. This also means that the down-stream supply of female role models is impoverished. This is a positive feedback squeal of women with potential and talent not developing it. The fact that women are more likely to be multi-talented means there are other things they can do, making the stereotype more sustainable.

I’ve had thirteen woman finish graduate study with me since I started as a professor. I have one current female student and I have two more joining my group this fall. A majority of my female students have been on full-ride merit-based scholarships. Here is what these women are doing now:

  • Instructor, Computer Science.
  • Chair, Northwest Iowa Technical College Math Department.
  • Research scientist, Pioneer Hi-bred.
  • Associate Professor of Mathematics.
  • Science Librarian.
  • Doctoral Candidate, Ontario College of Veterinary Medicine.
  • Analyst, insurance fraud detection division.
  • Chief Data Scientist, Figure One Inc (
  • Senior Analyst, financial planning firm.
  • Analyst and external research liaison, car parts manufacturer.
  • Tourist in Africa (a very recent graduate).
  • Researcher, JAX labs.
  • Research associate, Korean Research Institute of Bioscience and

Its interesting to note that many of these jobs benefit from mathematical training but are not directly in mathematics. One of my recent graduates, when asked if math majors can find employment, replied: “Will you get a job? Hell yes! Will it be doing math? No.” Three of the jobs are in biology and two are biology related. Figure One is a medical image sharing app, for example, and JAX labs is famous for having tens of thousands of different strains of lab mice.

The wall between women and mathematics is not one we’ve only noticed recently.

More than twenty years ago the famous mathematician Paul Erdos, when asked why there are so few women go into math, replied that many female student think if they are good at math, boys will ignore them.

I think we are making progress in getting talented women into math, but not enough by any measure.  People care about attracting partners, and it is a clear fact that a lot of men are uncomfortable with women who are smarter than them.

I work really hard to bring talented women into my group– it is a big win-win and a no-brainer–  but this is a bucket of water in the ocean. When I get a chance to talk to female high-school students about their experience, it is clear that many of their teachers don’t think women can do math. I once tried using a checklist to call on all the students the same number of times in a math-for-biology course at Iowa State. I had two female students complain (to my chair) that I was picking on them. It was their strong expectation that I would call on the male students.

Occupy Math is not at all sure what to do about these annoying culture stereotypes, and your helpful suggestions are eagerly solicited.  Add them in the comments?  I hope I see you here again.

Dan Ashlock
Department of Mathematics and Statistics
University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada


2 thoughts on “Stop being stupid and keeping women out of math

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