College Math Teaching

March 23, 2010

Women and Mathematics: New York Times

Filed under: mathematical ability, mathematics education, media, student learning — collegemathteaching @ 1:44 am

The New York Times has an interesting article:

A report on the underrepresentation of women in science and math by the American Association of University Women, to be released Monday, found that although women have made gains, stereotypes and cultural biases still impede their success.

The report, “Why So Few?,” supported by the National Science Foundation, examined decades of research to cull recommendations for drawing more women into science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the so-called STEM fields. […]

The association’s report acknowledges differences in male and female brains. But Ms. Hill said, “None of the research convincingly links those differences to specific skills, so we don’t know what they mean in terms of mathematical abilities.”

At the top level of math abilities, where boys are overrepresented, the report found that the gender gap is rapidly shrinking. Among mathematically precocious youth — sixth and seventh graders who score more than 700 on the math SAT — 30 years ago boys outnumbered girls 13 to 1, but only about 3 to 1 now.

“That’s not biology at play, it doesn’t change so fast,” Ms. Hill said. “Even if there are biological factors in boys outnumbering girls, they’re clearly not the whole story. There’s a real danger in assuming that innate differences are important in determining who will succeed, so we looked at the cultural factors, to see what evidence there is on the nurture side of nature or nurture.”

The article goes on to talk about the under representation of women at the higher level; it talks about tenure requirements (though I wonder if the differences in standards come from comparing newly tenured faculty with the older tenure faculty; many departments have raised standards for new faculty).

But here is the gem that applies to college math teaching:

“We found a lot of small things can make a difference, like a course in spatial skills for women going into engineering, or teaching children that math ability is not fixed, but grows with effort.”

Emphasis mine.

Of course there is a caveat too:

Many in the Bayer survey, also being released Monday, said they had been discouraged from going into their field in college, most often by a professor.

“My professors were not that excited to see me in their classes,” said Mae C. Jemison, a chemical engineer and the first African-American female astronaut, who works with Bayer’s science literacy project. “When I would ask a question, they would just look at me like, ‘Why are you asking that?’ But when a white boy down the row would ask the very same question, they’d say ‘astute observation.’ ”

What I’ve tried to do is to encourage student questions and only discourage those questions that stem from a lack of preparation; I have NOT noticed women asking worse questions than men.

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