Why Women Drop Maths

math women

Not only in the medical academic workforce are women underrepresented this also counts for science in general.

Women earned 31.3% of chemistry PhD degrees between 1993 and 2003 but in 2002 were hired for only 21.5% of assistant professorships. Similar disparities exist for new faculty appointments in physics, engineering, and mathematics.

As far as mathematics are concerned women continue to lag behind on math related careers. This gender gap has been tried to explain from a biological point of view but this ingrained prejudice has never been proven. Results from a wide range of studies shows contradictory results and remains inconclusive.

From a recent review on this subject it’s concluded that factors for underrepresentation in math intensive field are:

  • Math-proficient women disproportionately prefer careers
    in non–math-intensive fields and are more likely to leave math-intensive careers as they advance;
  • more men than women score in the extreme math-proficient range on gatekeeper tests, such as the SAT
    Mathematics and the Graduate Record Examinations Quantitative Reasoning sections;
  • women with high math competence are disproportionately more likely to have high verbal competence, allowing
    greater choice of professions;
  • in some math-intensive fields, women with children are penalized in promotion rates.

In even a more recent study it was shown that women who believed their math skills to be fixed and unchangeable were dropping math more often compared to women who believed their math skills to be malleable. Women who belief that they can’t grow in maths are more easily disengaging from math following failure. These women also reported less enjoyment and interest in math related subjects. Let alone, were interested in pursuing a “math career”.

Individual differences between women, differences in trait beliefs accounted for their liking, enjoying and pursuing of a math career.

Why is this important?
In order to resolve the gender gap issue in math there should be a focus on those women in academia that belief their math skills to be unchangeable. Early in their careers attention should be payed to those young girls that belief they can’t improve their math skills. It would be very efficient to focus on this group instead of larger more expensive programs addressing women in general.

Even though a great deal of attention and research has focused on the gender gap in mathematics, it still continues to persist. The results of the present study suggest that this gender difference may be primarily driven by a subset of women – those who believe their math ability is fixed and unchangeable.

It would be interesting to replicate this research on men. I know of one who’s not bothered by his lack of math skills: Bill O’Reilly should learn his maths. Moreover, now with the new Nobel prizes women have the last laugh: Do women have the brains to be great scientists

In 2005, while president of Harvard, he suggested that women are inherently worse than men at math, science and engineering, particularly at the highest levels. This week three women won Nobel prizes in science: two in medicine and one in chemistry. That achievement should put the nail in the coffin of the question Summers raised: Can many women really be great scientists?

Burkley, M., Parker, J., Paul Stermer, S., & Burkley, E. (2009). Trait beliefs that make women vulnerable to math disengagement Personality and Individual Differences DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2009.09.002
Ceci, S., Williams, W., & Barnett, S. (2009). Women’s underrepresentation in science: Sociocultural and biological considerations. Psychological Bulletin, 135 (2), 218-261 DOI: 10.1037/a0014412