Math--Where the Girls Are?

I went to an all-girls high school, so I never had a good sense of whether boys actually do call out all the answers or are pushed harder in math classes (two commonly cited reasons why families choose single-sex high schools).

In the Algebra II class I'm taking now at Fairfax High, the teacher is a woman and it's the girl who sits behind me who gets all the answers right and who often gets approached by the boys (and by me) for homework help. So, I'd like to are girls faring in math these days?

A new study shows girls are making some headway. In 2000 they made up about half of those who earned undergraduate math degrees. And in 2007, they constituted more than a quarter of U.S.-born math PhD's. The stats show that large numbers of women show the interest and aptitude to handle higher level math. But relatively few women are labeled gifted in math and on-track for top-flight math competitions.

The study looked at math competitions such as the International Mathematical Olympiad, and the
William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition, and found young women were under-represented. Those who did participate were often born in other countries in Eastern Europe or Asian, where math is more highly valued, and women are more encouraged.

For more, here's a New York Times story on the study.

By Michael Alison Chandler  |  October 20, 2008; 11:45 AM ET  | Category:  Class Time
Previous: High School Math -- in College | Next: My First A ... Almost


In my math classes the girls were always well represented and were usually at the top of the classes in the more advanced classes. As I teacher, i've never really seen the skewing that often gets reported in studies and in the media.

Posted by: ggartner | October 20, 2008 1:01 PM | Report abuse

The ICM and the WLPMC are somewhat less substantive mathematically than undergraduate mathematics degrees or PhD's in mathematics and these two measures of real world achievement should be emphasized.

As one Fields Medalist, Terrence Tao, writes on his blog:

"But mathematical competitions are very different activities from mathematical learning or mathematical research; don’t expect the problems you get in, say, graduate study, to have the same cut-and-dried, neat flavour that an Olympiad problem does."

Another Fields medalist, William Thurston writes, "these contests are a bit like spelling bees. There is some connection between good spelling and good writing, but the winner of the state spelling bee does not necessarily have the talent to become a good writer, and some fine writers are not good spellers. If there is a popular confusion between good spelling and good writing, many potential writers would be unnecessarily discouraged."

Thurston points out there is a danger to precocity. "People who skip ahead in the curriculum often have gaps in their background which only show up later. At that point, the person may be too embarrassed to admit the gap and tries to fake understanding. This regularly leads to disastrous results."

I see the problem of under-representation of women in contest mathematics with quite a bit of ambiguity. While one is concerned to see any kind of gendered disparity in the educational process, rectifying this particular disparity seems of less importance to the cause of increasing the number of women in mathematics and may in fact be detrimental.

Posted by: mathlete | October 21, 2008 8:27 AM | Report abuse

In observing my daughters accelerated math class, the classes are almost all half-boys, half-girls, but the stars are almost entirely boys. And boys make up the majority of the math team. That's who shows up without a lot of prodding by parents.

The sad thing is that math team and math contests is where kids actually learn how to do math (not just calculation). It's the ONLY place where kids see difficult problem, or problems where they aren't told which techniques to use when presented with the problem. It's the first place where kids are encouraged to be creative and use their imaginations with math. Contest math makes for better mathematicians in this day and age.

As the New York Times article pointed out, both boys and girls think math team (or any other academic competition) is dorky. The boys are more willing to be dorks. Maybe as a society we ought to do something about that. It would be a much better place if kids got as many good vibes from being smart as from being "hot". The attributes aren't mutually exclusive, and I can tell you which one lasts longer. . . .

Posted by: mom22 | October 27, 2008 3:28 PM | Report abuse

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