Why do Few Women Major in Math?

Occupy Math will start with a cheerful reason that women major in math less frequently than they otherwise might. A man who is gifted in math is likely to have no other high-skill high-interest area. Women with a talent for math often have several other talents. The content editor of Occupy Math (my daughter Charlotte) tested as gifted in language arts and math. The school she attended was set up with an assumption that students would be good at (at most) one thing and the choice was to give her enriched language arts instruction. Leaving aside the fact that school gifted programs range from excellent to shameful, even women that are good at math often do not end up getting enriched math instruction or going into math.

The University of Guelph, where Occupy Math currently works, has a group of undergraduate math majors who are more than half women. Maybe 5% of them entered as math majors. Guelph is famous for its work in the biological sciences, which is the most female-rich type of science. The entry level biology courses are taught in sections with hundreds of students and some of the faculty are researchers who are somewhat disengaged when teaching. Biology, as it is taught in universities today, also involves a lot of gratuitous memorization, or, to be fair, an amount of memorization that seems not to have adapted to the existence of the internet.

Here’s the scoop:

We have female math majors because we steal them.

Guelph has (or has had) several instructors who can make first year math courses engaging and interesting. The contrasts between math in high school, biology in university, and our first year math courses are sharp. Many current high school math courses discourage creativity and imagination. They are repetitive to the point of making studying math seem idiotic. Our first year courses at Guelph are brisk, but there is plenty of help. We have a clubhouse for our majors and an enormous room staffed with TAs in the library. In both these places you can get help from other students – often really good help. Occupy Math will stop by and answer a question occasionally too. This helps keep him aware of what’s going on in all the classes.

Occupy Math has more female collaborators and students than male ones. Why? The female colleagues and students are easier to work with than the male ones, at least on average. Arguments that are disguised dominance displays just don’t happen with Occupy Math’s female colleagues (they occasionally do with the male ones). This is, in part, a sly hint to my male colleagues about who they might want to collaborate with.

Given all this, why are there so few women in math?

A big factor in women staying out of math is everyone, from their own teachers to Hollywood, telling them they are, as women, intrinsically unable to do mathematics. Here are some examples, new and old.

1. Quoting Wikipedia: In July 1992, Mattel released Teen Talk Barbie, which spoke a number of phrases including “Will we ever have enough clothes?”, “I love shopping!”, and “Wanna have a pizza party?” Each doll was programmed to say four out of 270 possible phrases, so that no two given dolls were likely to be the same. One of these 270 phrases was “Math class is tough!” (often misquoted as “Math is hard”). Although only about 1.5% of all the dolls sold said the phrase, it led to criticism from the American Association of University Women. In October 1992, Mattel announced that Teen Talk Barbie would no longer say the phrase, and offered a swap to anyone who owned a doll that did. From: Barbie

2. The ever-helpful Kele Lampe pointed Occupy Math to an edition of the Roots of Unity blog by Evelyn Lamb. You can read her blog, but here is the short version: a math book painted a word picture of four people. The description of the woman in the group was “… the young blond with the tight blouse and the too-short skirt, …“. Occupy Math cannot imagine how objectifying the woman aids a mathematics book, but it does reinforce the notion that women are supposed to look good, not think or do math.

3. In a conversation on Facebook, the following comment appeared from a female correspondent: “Reminds me of when I was in 10th Grade. I got an A on the homework and the algebra teacher accused me of cheating from my boyfriend. In front of the entire class, he wanted to move me from my seat so that I wouldn’t cheat from him on the test. For once in my life, I stood up to an adult authority figure and refused to move. I told him to stand over me during the entire test, and if I cheated to tear up my paper and give me an F in the class. Of course I wasn’t cheating, and so the A that I got was earned all on my own. That was definitely the end of any enjoyment I had in math.”

4.  Long ago, Occupy Math was honored to keynote a conference called the “High School Women’s Math Conference” in Clinton, Iowa. The talk was about a type of fractal, an example of which is given below. Click for more. After the talk, Occupy Math wandered around and chatted with the high school women who had chosen to come to the conference. More than twenty of them recounted tales of teachers (some of them female!) who had firmly explained to them that women could not really do math and had no future in math or science.

5. The Guardian found a medium-boatload of myths that keep women out of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers. (Pathetically, the Guardian titled the story Five myths keeping women out of science careers and then listed six myths. Oh, well.) The one that Occupy Math found most annoying is “Women are Only Good at Soft Skills”. Occupy Math is certain that this is arrant nonsense. It has been documented to some degree that women are more likely to have good soft skills than men, but to think they only have soft skills is to commit the same error that caused the schools to ignore the mathematical talent of Occupy Math’s daughter.

6. Occupy Math was briefly interrupted while drafting this post by his graduate student, Meghan Timmins. Ms. Timmins is writing her master’s thesis on using evolution to create networks with particular properties. After clarifying a couple of points connected to her research, Occupy Math asked her if she had ever been told that she would have trouble with math, because she was a woman. Her reply? “Yes, my guidance councilor told me that mathematical fields are hard to go into as a woman.” Ms. Timmins and I just submitted the third paper on her master’s research – the first has appeared and the second is accepted.

Occupy Math’s opinion? Arrrrggggghhhhh!

To recap: women are told in the media, by their toys, by their teachers, and by authority figures including academic councilors that they cannot do math. It is no wonder that the female-rich mathematics and statistics programs at Guelph rely on theft from other majors rather than admissions to get their students. It is very much not a wonder that we have relatively few women in math and, more broadly, the STEM disciplines. This is not a new theme for Occupy Math, but so many additional examples presented themselves.

There is some evidence that women think differently than men. There is no credible evidence that their skill in math is lower – other than because they are denied training and membership in the mathematical community. Occupy Math has noted before that having many viewpoints is helpful, even critical, in solving mathematical problems. This suggests that including a group that approaches math somewhat differently (on average) would be a big help. For analogous reasons, North American persons of color and members of first nations are under-represented in math. A wonderful movie about this is Stand and Deliver. Occupy Math believes that any under-represented group has the potential to bring novel, valuable points of view to the mathematical enterprise.

Hopefully, this blog can stiffen the resolve of those with math talent to continue their interest and studies in spite of oppression. Occupy Math also hopes those who are free to pursue their mathematical talents will oppose this oppression and reach out to your brothers and sisters that are being irrationally discouraged. Got a horror story, or, better, a story of triumph over adversity? Please comment or tweet! Unless he is hit by a bus, Occupy Math will inevitably come back to this topic again and more material would be welcome.

I hope to see you here again,
Daniel Ashlock,
University of Guelph,
Department of Mathematics and Statistics


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