Home > math, math education, rant, women in math > Gender bias in math

Gender bias in math

February 10, 2013

I don’t agree with everything she always says, but I agree with everything Izabella Laba says in this post called Gender Bias 101 For Mathematicians (hat tip Jordan Ellenberg). And I’m kind of jealous she put it together in such a fantastic no-bullshit way.

Namely, she debunks a bunch of myths of gender bias. Here’s my summary, but you should read the whole thing:

  1. Myth: Sexism in math is perpetrated mainly by a bunch of enormously sexist old guys. Izabella: Nope, it’s everyone, and there’s lots of evidence for that.
  2. Myth: The way to combat sexism is to find those guys and isolate them. Izabella: Nope, that won’t work, since it’s everyone.
  3. Myth: If it’s really everyone, it’s too hard to solve. Izabella: Not necessarily, and hey you are still trying to solve the Riemann Hypothesis even though that’s hard (my favorite argument).
  4. Myth: We should continue to debate about its existence rather than solution. Izabella: We are beyond that, it’s a waste of time, and I’m not going to waste my time anymore.
  5. Myth: Izabella, you are only writing this to be reassured. Izabella: Don’t patronize me.

Here’s what I’d add. I’ve been arguing for a long time that gender bias against girls in math starts young and starts at the cultural level. It has to do with expectations of oneself just as much as a bunch of nasty old men (by the way, the above is not to say there aren’t nasty old men (and nasty old women!), just that it’s not only about them).

My argument has been that the cultural differences are larger than the talent differences, something Larry Summers strangely dismissed without actually investigating in his famous speech.

And I think I’ve found the smoking gun for my side of this argument, in the form of an interactive New York Times graphic from last week’s Science section which I’ve screenshot here:

Gender bias through testing internationally

What this shows is that 15-year-old girls out-perform 15-year-old boys in certain countries and under-perform them in others. Those countries where they outperform boys is not random and has everything to do with cultural expectations and opportunities for girls in those countries and is explained to some extent by stereotype threat. Go read the article, it’s fascinating.

I’ll say again what I said already at the end of this post: the great news is that it is possible to address stereotype threat directly, which won’t solve everything but will go a long way.

You do it by emphasizing that mathematical talent is not inherent, nor fixed at birth, and that you can cultivate it and grow it over time and through hard work. I make this speech whenever I can to young people. Spread the word!

  1. Thads
    February 10, 2013 at 7:44 am

    Like you, I don’t always agree with Izabella Laba, but this time she is spot on. Much the same points apply to racism as to sexism: the main problem is not the overt prejudice of a few, but the subtle prejudice of the many, including those of us who think we are fair-minded, and including even those who belong to the minority themselves. As Prof. Laba notes, the case of the music business is striking: female membership in symphony orchestras has shot up dramatically since blind auditions behind a screen became the norm.


    • Sally
      February 12, 2013 at 12:21 pm

      I have started counting the women in symphonies when I attend concerts. They are often in the majority now. That’s a big change from a generation ago. I’ve heard it’s because the musicians trying to qualify for the orchestra play behind screens these days so that the judging panel cannot know the gender.


  2. Thads
    February 10, 2013 at 7:54 am

    Another comment: about that chart. How weird and counterintuitive! The countries where girls most strongly outperform boys in math include Qatar, Dubai, and Jordan. Those where boys most strongly outperform girls include the USA, Belgium, Denmark, and Switzerland. It would be hard to support a broad claim that women are more liberated in the former countries than the latter. So the mechanism by which gender prejudice acts must be subtle…


    • Michelle
      February 10, 2013 at 2:17 pm

      But those are also the countries that are underperforming in the world, so I think it’s a more complicated question there. More interesting is to focus on the countries high up on the scale. Finland & Japan are skewed towards the girls (and I have heard that the cultural bias is the opposite in Finland… the feeling is that in general girls are better and math & science). The others (South Korea, China, Singapore, Hong Kong) are pretty close to that axis.


    • Norwell
      February 12, 2013 at 4:06 pm

      It’s not that surprising to me… In Arab countries young girls aren’t really allowed to have a social life to the extent they are in Western countries (more so than boys), and it doesn’t surprise me they end out spending more time on their studies. I believe the same phenomenon occurs in Iran.


    • Bobito
      February 13, 2013 at 9:15 am

      Who gets educated in Qatar? Everybody? Or only the children of social elites? If the latter, then it might be that the rich social elites do educate their daughters while discouraging everybody else from educating their daughters.


    • Bobito
      February 13, 2013 at 9:16 am

      Another possibility: maybe in some countries doing math is seen as a feminine activity, not the sort of thing a man should be wasting his time doing. It’s complicated to interpret the numbers because you have to know something about the culture.


  3. February 10, 2013 at 9:17 am

    As a father of a 1 year old girl who has 2 older brothers I see the indoctrination into gender identity from infancy. As a long time math teacher I don’t see the continuation of gender identity formation. Perhaps it is because I am blind to my own bias or because I take steps to mitigate the bias. Either way I would think the cultural bias is most pronounced in schools and read as much as a teacher candidate, e.g. teachers calling on boys more often.


    • Sally
      February 12, 2013 at 12:27 pm

      To mitigate the calling on girls vs calling on boys, every other day can be a ‘call on girls day’ and the next a ‘call on boys day’!


  4. voltrade
    February 10, 2013 at 9:30 am

    jordan is that yellow dot on the far right. Jordan…


  5. February 10, 2013 at 10:28 am

    Are there are any cross-cultural studies to see what some of the other differences are between these cultures that may lead to this difference in performance across genders?

    I remember reading recently that U.S. mothers and father do about half as much early number talk with their daughters as their sons, and this would certainly have an impact on later numeracy. Of course, our brains are plastic, so shouldn’t schools be able to do something in the early years to help counteract this effect?


  6. Dave
    February 10, 2013 at 10:54 am

    “But if everyone is biased” This line devolves from rational argument into a game of Simon Says when it twists into the idea that we all share the biases of the cultural norm, to varying degrees. I hear this at work, the very place where I teach women for my grandmother who wanted to study math, not out of the insecurity that this line presumes. People who would catch themselves before making the idiotic argument that we’re all straight to varying degrees, don’t catch themselves before making the argument that we’re all sexist to varying degrees. What if the bias with which I privately struggle is the firsthand knowledge that white males of Christian descent from upstate New York are the least interesting and least motivated examples of the species? Like why marriages break up, you just don’t know if you’re not there. So we shouldn’t presume to know.


  7. piper
    February 10, 2013 at 10:56 am

    that having been said, i wouldn’t mind if someone would combat the more overt sexism encountered in graduate school by one’s supposedly non-sexist peers.


  8. Joe
    February 10, 2013 at 12:03 pm

    That graphic is not as clear-cut to me as it seems to be to you. In particular, it’s possible that it says nothing at all about sexism. Don’t get me wrong — there’s undoubtedly gender bias in math, and there should definitely be further discussion (and action!) to eradicate it. But this fact by itself doesn’t preclude the existence of areas which, for whatever crazy biological reason, come more easily to women than to men. (By “areas” I don’t mean absurdly broad terms like “Science” or “Math”; rather, I mean geometry vs algebra.) The graphic might indeed indicate that there’s more sexism in the US than in Jordan; but it might just as well indicate that what’s taught in “Science” classes in Jordan comes more easily to girls, and what’s taught in “Science” classes in the US comes more easily to boys. Me, I have no idea or opinion about this. I’m just a Joe looking at a graphic which I don’t know much about. But I think it’s dangerous to draw “obvious” conclusions from such things.


    • February 10, 2013 at 12:39 pm

      I’m not saying anything deep about that graphic. Just noting that the scores vary more by culture than you might expect. Of course we don’t have error bars on the points, but if I saw that without any other evidence I’d guess that girls are better at science than boys but that there’s a lot of variation among cultures for whatever reason.

      Note that we could also argue about the various weights of the points – we could weight by population for example. China is slightly to the right of the gender divide, US is firmly to the left.


  9. Constantine Costes
    February 10, 2013 at 12:39 pm

    In response to Thads’ second comment, let me note that interestingly, Qatar, UAE (which contains Dubai), and Jordan are the most Westernized Arab countries. I taught math and physics at a foundations program at a junior college in Qatar for a year, and while I hesitate to draw any sweeping conclusions from my and my colleagues’ experiences, there is absolutely no doubt that where I taught the girls were much better students than the boys, and not just in math. (In Qatar, they call nineteen-year-old and twenty-year-old students “girls” and “boys.”) The commonly accepted reason was that the girls understood that this was their last chance at a non-traditional life; if university in Qatar did not work out, then the girls would be spending their time raising families. The boys had the fallback option of going overseas to another university and had no difficulty securing a career in any case (usually going into the family business). But the parents were uncomfortable with the idea of sending their daughters overseas. So any girl who wanted a career was extremely motivated to study, in a way that the boys were not. The other important factor is that there is a big push in Qatar to make education available to girls/women, and it is notably backed by Her Highness Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, DBE, (whom Westerners might call “a Queen” — she is married to the monarch), who is extremely influential and committed. So while I do not have anything close to statistical proof, I would tentatively venture that, at least in some cases in these countries, it comes down to two things: a door has opened relatively recently for girls/women and they realize that they have to take advantage of it earlier rather than later in their lives.


    • February 10, 2013 at 12:40 pm

      Interesting! Thanks!


      • Alan
        February 12, 2013 at 11:12 am

        Mathbabe, your bias in Cavour of females is just as prejudiced as Larry Summer’s view of women; you happen to be more polite in the expression of your beliefs.

        There has been a strong push for more females in science, to the discouragement of more men in science via the granting of scholarships and research funding, a bias that should combatted by all persons who hope for a meritocratic society. In Canadian universities it occurs via reserving an equal number of scholarships for female students… but since male students in science and math vastly outnumber female students (aside from the disciplines of biology and chemistry) male students are disproportionately denied access scholarships and funding. This fact is not lost on the male students, breedIng a new generation of men who will be angry at women.


        • February 12, 2013 at 11:14 am

          That’s just too trivial a way of looking at things. Please see myth #4.


  10. Justin
    February 10, 2013 at 1:27 pm

    For those wondering if these cultural differences are driven by different meanings of “math” and “science” across countries, it may be useful to know that there are big cultural differences in high-end test-score performance (on the same test) across states in the US too. My co-author and I wrote a paper on that here: http://research3.bus.wisc.edu/file.php/245/Research_papers/genderdiffs.pdf


  11. NotRelevant
    February 10, 2013 at 2:27 pm

    Generally speaking, boys outperformed girls in Western European countries and the Americas, while girls outperformed boys in Eastern Europe, Southern Europe, and Middle Eastern countries. Yet we generally believe that women are discriminated against more in these latter regions, particularly the Middle East. Who would have thought that girls who are expected to wear hajibs would significantly outscore boys on a math test? But that’s exactly what happened in Jordan.

    Looking at the scale on the graph actually encourages me. Although the differences may be clear, they are also insignificant. Few places show a gap of more than 4%, and the most important countries of that group are Colombia and Bulgaria, in reverse alphabetical order. When the differences are so small and the groups so large, then it’s fair to say that the likelihood of any one individual to be better than another based solely on sex is indistinguishable.

    I used to think that people with political educations were extraordinarily annoying, until I gained experience with people who have no political education. Without a fundamental understand of citizenship as it is founded in our Constitution, the laws of Congress, and the many Supreme Court decisions through the centuries, most people practice a form of equality that is tantamount to mob rule and burning witches at the stake.


    • Bobito
      February 13, 2013 at 9:14 am

      Of course Spain, Portugal, etc. legalized gay marriage while England, France, Germany, US, are still getting used to the idea. Not everything is so simple.

      The explanation for the apparently greater success of women in math in E. Europe, S. Europe and the Middle East is probably in part that in these cultures being a mathematician is not very prestigious socially, whereas in the US/UK/Germany it is. But the explanation might also be that the US/UK/Germany are more sexist cultures.


  12. c.gutierrez
    February 10, 2013 at 2:28 pm

    I just finished reading the book Influence by Robert B. Cialdini, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Arizona State. He expounds on the principle of social proof, which (in a simplified nutshell) means that we look to those around us to indicate how we should think and act — and the more ambiguous the situation, the more we tend to rely on social proofs. This would suggest that there aren’t as many women in math as there are men because … there aren’t many women in math. It also suggests that it should help girls and young women to take an interest and advance in male-dominated subjects if they participate in activities with other girls and women practicing those subjects. Also, as an earlier poster suggests, the principle of social proof apparently applies across other demographic classifications like culture and social status.


  13. Dan L
    February 10, 2013 at 3:17 pm

    It is for this reason that it is my conviction than only sexism can explain why so many people people choose to believe in an innate advantage in math for men over women. Throughout all of human history and also across modern cultures there is enormous variation in the relative performance of men vs women. So even if the existence of some biological difference in math ability is plausible (the main obvious point pushed by proponents of the innate advantage theory), what seems obvious to me is (1) these differences are easily swamped by cultural differences, and (2) there is zero empirical evidence for them, so much so that it’s equally plausible that women are actually innately better at math than men. It’s become so obvious to me that I’m just tired of arguing it.


  14. rmb
    February 10, 2013 at 3:21 pm

    One factor to consider is cultural attitudes towards math and science. By that I mean that there are (at least) two factors in play: how patriarchal a given society is, and whether that society considers it desirable to be good at math and science. In more male-dominated societies, higher-status roles skew male and lower-status roles skew female, almost tautologically (to generalize: in the US, lawyers are male, legal secretaries are female; doctors are male, nurses are female; mathematicians are male, math teachers are female).

    In the US, for example, working in math and science tends to be high-status and well-paid (although teaching those subjects in high school tends to be a low-status and mostly female job), and we have numerous very public campaigns to get more Americans to study those subjects. Those campaigns tend to talk in terms of training more scientists, and culturally we view teaching as a quasi-unskilled fall-back for people who are “not good enough”. When I tell people that I’m a grad student in math, I’m generally asked if I plan to teach; I suspect that my male classmates don’t get that question nearly so often.

    But there’s no particular reason that these attitudes towards math and science would be universal. If there’s no particular cultural emphasis on math or science, you could easily imagine girls doing far better on these tests. For example, I think I read somewhere that in Japan, accounting (and by extension, math) was traditionally viewed as low-status women’s work that went along with managing a household.


    • Bobito
      February 13, 2013 at 9:19 am

      Those attitudes aren’t universal. There’s a reason that in 5 or 6 centuries Spain has produced loads of artists and writers of the top level – Picasso, Goya, Dali, Miro, etc., Quevedo, Lorca, etc. – and yet has never produced a single mathematician or physicist of that level. It’s mainly cultural.


  15. Tomboktu
    February 10, 2013 at 7:06 pm

    A 2003 study in Ireland examined the way in which teachers in maths class interacted with students.

    “Not surprisingly, the findings (Table 6.2 and Tables A6.1) were almost identical to those reported for all teacherinitiated interactions, confirming that boys received significantly more teacher-initiated questions than girls. In the main, therefore, we can conclude that boys were more involved in the main business of the lessons than girls in the coeducational classes observed.”

    “Within the coeducational lessons, a significant difference was found only in relation to higher cognitive order questions (Figure 6.1, Tables A6.2). Boys received more of these questions compared with girls. On average, the boys received 0.3 higher-order questions per lesson (fifty-one interactions observed), and girls 0.1 interactions per lesson (sixteen interactions observed).”

    Maureen Lyons, Kathleen Lynch, Sean Close, Emer Sheerin and Philip Boland (2003) Inside Classrooms: The Teaching and Learning of Mathematics in Social Context. Dublin: IPA.

    Click to access chap6.pdf


  16. February 10, 2013 at 9:55 pm

    In my opinion, the fact that boys outperform girls in Science or conversely does not mean that the better ones will automatically make that their career. So if there is a dearth of female scientists or mathematicians in the United States; is it because of sexism in the hiring process ? If that is the case, I find it hard to believe that companies would prefer a less-than-capable male candidate to a more-capable female. And we’ve always thought that the United States is a bastion of meritocracy.


  17. joeblo
    February 11, 2013 at 12:55 am

    The problem I have with that plot is that it shows only a mean, where certainly professors in math/science are outliers. I’ve known some brilliant mathematicians and several came from pretty bad educational backgrounds. It would be wonderful to think that we may have a Ramanujan from Qatar… but she will be much more than a few % outside the norm of her male peers.

    I’d prefer to also see a plot of correlated outcomes.


    • Dan L
      February 11, 2013 at 11:21 am

      I’m pretty sure that the numbers of female math profs varies widely across different countries. Actual data backing me up here would be nice, but would bet that in any statistical comparison across different countries, we will see the obvious: that cultural differences swamp sex differences.


  18. OMF
    February 11, 2013 at 8:23 am

    Let me put my cultural antropologist hat on and consider this graph.

    Based on the western/eastern europe scale, I will guess that societies in which females do substantially better are ones in which males do not require mathematics in order to advance. Advancement is primarily based on cronyism, socialisation, and other “soft” skills. Mathematics is less subject to “prestige” and subsequent classisms.

    Meanwhile in western europe, mathematics is now seen as a mark of the “smart guy” and is increasingly a core part of his CV if he is to advance in industries like finance and technology. Recalling that the amount of mathematics(not numerology) actually used in these industries is minimal, mathematics becomes part of a competative race and subsequent classisms, with attitude knocking young girls out of the race early to make more room for the men scrabling for positions.

    Western finance is riddled with “smart people”, who appear to have done well in high school algebra and AP calculus, but yet who design dysfunctional and catastrope prone systems that manage to “lose” billions of dollars in mere minutes. This is the end result of a race which measures someones worth by their ability to learn to solve equations by formula and and recite the digits of pi by rote.


  19. david
    February 11, 2013 at 9:17 am

    Maybe there is an anti male math gender bias outside the US.


    • Dan L
      February 11, 2013 at 11:09 am

      Certainly possible. In the sense that some of the theories described by commenter above can be thought of as cultural factors that work against male mathematical achievement. However, if you believe in this possibility, it is also clear that our observation of the world gives us essentially no insight into the underlying question of “innate” ability of males vs females.


      • joeblo
        February 11, 2013 at 11:28 am

        I’d say that actually the chart shows that average innate ability is very consistent (a few percent )… unfortunately it doesn’t say much else about the distribution. However, the fact that average outcomes don’t follow (I’m assuming, but I think it’s an accepted assumption ) means that something fishy is going on. There can’t be a direct linear outcome correlation to this measured ability… unless for example some other attribute (eg sex) has a negative correlation.


  20. jgalt47
    February 11, 2013 at 3:12 pm

    Let me look at this upside down. Weighted by population it would seem that girls are favored over boys around the world. Within the US, you report the studies that show boys are encouraged more than girls, but I’m not aware of any studies that show this effect by subject. Within the US more girls are in higher ed than boys (although nnot in STEM areas) so the encouragement is very specific and doesn’t flow to other areas.

    I’m not seeing a consistent pattern here.


    • Matt
      February 12, 2013 at 11:54 am

      Check out Justin’s fact-filled paper linked in his comment (#13, above). The first paragraph indicates that in the US, girls have outnumbered boys in getting STEM degrees for over a decade now!

      If we wait a couple of generations (not the most appealing time scale or strategy, I admit), my bet is that these trends will unavoidably make their way into company boards and university faculties. It’s like Izabella’s approach #2, in the light of #1: You can indeed isolate all of us from the system — via retirement.


  21. February 11, 2013 at 3:29 pm

    Would I be correct in saying that there are talent differences but they do not fully account for the total differences in science performance?


  22. K
    February 11, 2013 at 4:57 pm

    Gender is caste in America.


  23. 672FHP
    February 11, 2013 at 8:01 pm

    1.Girls do better in reading in the U.S.. Everyone knows this and the media mentions it a lot. Does that constitute gender bias against boys? Are we lowering boy’s expectations? (Would you care if we were?)

    2. Whenever there is a performance difference that has women or girls on the short side, it’s always attributed to gender bias. When boys or men do worse, it’s often seen as due to their own problematic behavior: too inattentive, too much time with video games, etc. Perhaps men will do better in the long run because they are discouraged from blaming society for their failings.

    3. It’s odd that many of the countries thay you admire because the girls did better than the boys actually had lower scores for girls than American girls achieved. Do you think it’s more important to be better than the boys, or to actually learn more math? Would you be happier if American girls had lower scores than they did, but were better than American boys?

    4. Since women have made up the majority of college students for the past 30 years, or more, and have become the majority in nearly all undergrad departments, isn’t it possible that they are simply choosing fields that they like? Don’t they know what they like, what is best for them? Is there evidence of a large number of frustrated Psych, or Bio majors who really wish they were in STEM departments?


  24. February 11, 2013 at 11:56 pm

    “I’ve been arguing for a long time that gender bias against girls in math starts young and starts at the cultural level.”

    where is the evidence? Girls keep getting better grades right from the start and if you believe in the validity of stereotype threat, it should be boys who think that they can’t do maths because girls get better grades in the classroom.
    A recent study pointed out that girls get better grades for better behavior, one from UK showed that girls and later boys stereotyped girls as smarter at a very young age because of their better classroom performance.
    Situation is similar in Sweden where despite having same test performance, girls get better grades. In UK, girls scored better on maths in the GCSEs for a decade, till the coursework was dropped three years ago.
    Another study found that ‘self discipline’ gives girl the edge; despite scoring half a SD below boys on IQ tests, they had grades half a SD better.

    Amusingly the person you linked to, links the study on gender and blind auditions in music!


    “My argument has been that the cultural differences are larger than the talent differences, ”

    La Griffe du Lion showed that it’s the other way round, and the cultural differences are overwhelmingly in favor of girls. (THE MATH SEX GAP REVISITED: A THEORY OF EVERYONE)

    “You do it by emphasizing that mathematical talent is not inherent, nor fixed at birth, and that you can cultivate it and grow it over time and through hard work. ”

    but if girls work harder, get more help in school, while boys are plagued with apathy as described by folks like Leonard Sax and Marty Nemko; yet get trounced on tests which are kinda like the gender-blind music auditions, then shouldn’t one come to the conclusion that whatever it is that people have it at birth or grow into or whatever, boys have more of it?


  25. February 12, 2013 at 4:28 pm

    The following article would seem to support the importance of culture of “innate” ability (though the findings if true of really pretty interesting in their own right – published in SA).



    • Paul Meyer
      February 12, 2013 at 4:29 pm

      whoops, should be “culture over innate”


  26. Paul Meyer
    February 12, 2013 at 4:57 pm

    One aspect of the innate vs culture argument that pisses me off is the presumption
    That the gatekeeping institutions
    1) Can necessarily measure indicators of “talent”
    2) Are measuring “talent”, if they in principle can
    All “gatekeepers” have to do to fulfill their social function is to create a restricted pool of applicants, they don’t have to select the best group of applicants where “best” is measured relative to many possible standards (for the discipline, for society at large, etc).

    Re #2, there is probably not one set of “talents” or characteristics that are important in all areas of mathematical endeavor at all times, if anything what little I know of the research indicates a broad range of cognitive skills are called up in math, so relying on a too narrow set of measures could actually hamper the advance of mathematical knowledge. Also, mathematical progress (as in the sciences) does not just take place through individual effort but through the culture and dynamics of research communities. The qualities that allow one to interactive productively with others, to disseminate knowledge and inspire colleagues and students are probably not anything that gets tested for as students are explicitly/implicitly tracked into the discipline.


  27. Suhyoung
    February 13, 2013 at 2:52 am

    Anyway, the greatest reason that there are not many women in almost all upper-level professions is really that they have children and most of the responsibility goes that way. Of course, we could change that, but this of course might imply that the husbands also loose jobs taking care of the kids. No employer like the employee caring and thinking too much about family matters. So the burden almost always goes to one of the partners.. Please don’t overlook this factor in the sexism today… I think that this is something that is not stated…


  28. Bobito
    February 13, 2013 at 9:11 am

    How much of this is US/UK/wherever specific? In much of Southern Europe, more women get PhDs in math than men. I work in a reasonably large department that is majority women.

    Of course this observation can be explained: in Sourthern Europe mathematics has low social prestige. Engineers are mostly men.


  29. 672FHP
    February 13, 2013 at 10:09 am

    The chart seems to show most of the better-performing countries, those with scores higher up on the vertical axis, with girls and boys scores within about 3% of each other. The countries in which there is more of a gender gap either way have scores lower than the North American. and Western Europe.

    Is 3% really significant? Does it really mean the Western Europe and the Americas have a culture that discourages girls from excelling at math because, e.g., the boys got a 97 and the girls a 94? I could imagine a gap that small might change from year to year. I think we are drawing conclusions not warranted by this data.

    Also, since the countries that had more of a gap than 3% in favor of girls all seem to have lower scores for girls than U.S. girls, shouldn’t we conclude that we are doing a BETTER job of encouraging girls in math than they are?


  30. 672FHP
    February 13, 2013 at 9:13 pm

    Cathy O’Neil, what do you think of the point that Larry Summers and others have made, that there is a gender gap in favor of boys/men at the upper limits of the normal distribution of math ability (and at the lowest)? Boys/Men seem to have a wider distribution, a wider gaussian curve, of many biological traits, including facility at math problem solving.

    This would mean that while the median for males and females might be identical, there would be, at the extreme leading end of the normal curve, many more males. So, more males that have very exceptional ability. This could explain why there are more tenured professors and department heads in math-intensive fields. It would also explain why there are more boys/men at the bottom end of the scale.

    There are, for example, nearly twice as many boys as girls scoring over 780 on the math SAT test.

    Click to access SAT-Mathemathics-Percentile-Ranks-2012.pdf

    I believe over 90% of the winners of the International Math Olympiad have been male.

    Click to access SAT-Mathemathics-Percentile-Ranks-2012.pdf

    So, we would not expect to see much of an advantage to one sex or the other on the kind of tests we have been discussing, which test basic competency. But on more rigorous tests of exceptional math ability, men might predominate.

    You yourself might be in this group of the mathematically gifted. What do you think?


  31. February 27, 2013 at 7:13 am

    Here’s what I want to say on this topic, if I may.
    Girls, boys, men or women, doesn’t matter. Everyone has the same abilities, but not the same possibilities, you know. As for me, these mathematicians have always been like that: a “boys club”, and it’s not that women can’t do maths, it’s that they’re not allowed. They won’t teach you, won’t treat you with respect… And where will you arrive at on your own? Maths nowadays (especially abstract maths…) is so hard, and you simply need to have someone to help you, not only to get started, but to go on, you need companions… But if everyone at the department says, girls, oh, you’re so beautiful, you are flowers in our garden, we love you all so much, but when it comes to maths, all they do is laughing at you and embarrasing you! I don’t know, but that is the case with my friend and it happened to me few times… Treat you like a thing, as if you were only capable of cooking meals for someone.
    There’s nothing bad in this division I suppose, I mean that women run houses, men earn money, women are beautiful and tender, men are strong, it must be that way, it is natural, but if a woman has some abilities to do maths, what’s wrong with it??? But still, our brightest minds are sure of the fact that girls can’t be good at maths.
    Still, I must say, there’s even greater bias… Mathematicians do not divide people on men and women. They divide everyone on those who know maths and those who don’t! If you’re not a mathematician, you’re definitely below their level (well, in most cases). Why? Why do all these scientists misuse the brains, the brilliant abilities they got from th Creator???


  32. Choi
    March 24, 2013 at 10:54 pm

    I wonder if this has anything to do with the fact that southern European culture is more humane and less driven by goals and ambitions. Males are definitely better when the culture encourages these behaviors.


  33. Corporate Serf
    March 27, 2013 at 4:21 pm

    AMS had this paper which looked at this question and substantially came to the same conclusion as you, though expressed in a less combative fashion.

    Specifically they looked at the effect of culture by looking at proportion of female mathematicians in different countries. Some countries stood out: Romania, (I think a couple other former east bloc countries) South Korea and so on. More specifically, they did a deep dive on performance data from math olympiads. I believe there was a discussion of why something like SAT scores (didn’t Summers used those?) does not work, namely it is no good at separating out those with just above average mathematical ability (economist) from one with superior mathematical ability (physicist / mathematician).

    (The deep dive was instructive; quite clearly, it was not done with a simple script)


    • Corporate Serf
      March 27, 2013 at 4:32 pm

      Sorry, bad form to answer one’s own post, but I don’t see an edit button.

      The AMS notice is here:

      Click to access fea-gallian.pdf

      The other interesting thing is this: South Korea and Taiwan somehow manages to find enough girls with math olympiad level ability to represent their countries, but geographical neighbor Japan, can’t. Similar stories in Europe.

      The study also analyzes (or tries) American participants according to their / their parents’ country of origin, and uses this as a proxy for control group.


  34. March 5, 2014 at 8:16 am

    In Europe girls seems to do better in (ex)-communist countries. I bet that in East Germany they were doing way better than in West Germany and that since the reunion they have been doing worse, a trend I predict for all other ex-communist countries as well.
    So let’s conclude with girl mathematicians of the world unite …..


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