Math Career Predictor

I am interested in a career in mathematics. How hard is it to be a woman mathematician?

Let us look at some numbers from the American Mathematical Society Survey Reports for the year 2005:

  • There were 40% of women among graduating math majors.
  • There were 30% of women among Math PhDs granted.
  • There were 11% of women among full-time tenured or tenure-track positions.

You can’t just say that women do not like math — 40% of those choosing math as a major is quite a large number, after all.

On the other hand, the downward trend of these percentages is striking. If women’s opportunities and abilities are the same as men’s, these percentages should grow with every age step, since, as we know, the percentage of women in the population increases with age due to men dying earlier.

But the numbers go down and very fast. There are many potential explanations for this, but today we’re going to look at one of them:

Women have less ability for high-level mathematics.

Was Larry Summers right when in his speech that cost him his Harvard presidency he compared math ability to height and to the propensity for criminality, and suggested that the distribution, especially standard deviation, of math ability differs for men and women?

To answer this question, I wanted to find some other data that correlates gender with math abilities. I took the results of the American Mathematical Competitions (AMC 12) for the year 2008. Among 120,000 students who participated, 43% were females. Here are some results:

  • Among students scoring 72 points or higher there were 40% of girls.
  • Among students scoring 98 points or higher there were 30% of girls.
  • Among students scoring 134.5 points or higher there were 11% of girls.

This picture is similar to that of the academic career: the closer you climb to the top, the smaller percentage of girls you see there. Of course, winning a competition is very different from getting tenure. People who win competitions are smart and competitive — smart and competitive enough to go for money, rather than academia. On the other hand, people who are interested in mathematics often are not interested in anything else. Why would they waste their time in competitions when the Riemann Hypothesis is still waiting to be solved?

But still, both achieving tenure and winning math competitions represent mathematical ability in some sense. If Larry Summers was right and the distribution of math ability is different among males and females, then by looking around you at the percentage of females at your level, you should be able to assess how close you are to the top of the math field.

I propose the following math career predictor: Take your results in AMC 12. If among kids who did better than you, the percentage of girls is more than 11%, you do not have a chance at tenure. If the percentage of girls is more than 30%, do not waste your time working on a math PhD. If the percentage of girls is more than 40% maybe math majoring is not for you.

I hate my math career predictor. I hate it not only because it has so many flaws that it might just deserve the Ig Nobel Prize, but because it doesn’t take people’s effort into account. You really have to work very hard to be a math professor, whether you were a winner or a loser in math competitions.

You might ask why I created a math career predictor that is so flawed. My mathematician friends, those who are more honest than polite, tell me that I have no chance at getting back to academia. On the other hand, I had the second best result at the 1976 IMO, which means I have the ability. My predictor may be my only hope.



  1. Maria Roginskaya:

    It should be noticed, that the correlation between being good on IMO and having a decent career as a mathematician at the best doesn’t exists, and on the worst is negative (works for boys and girls alike).

  2. Misha:

    Where did you get your data, Maria?

  3. Misha:

    One wonders why this correlation may be weak or even negative. Maybe because the social skills trump the mathematical talent most of the time? A while ago I had read an essay Why I’m not a Writer that expresses a similar sentiment. I hope you will find it thought-provoking. Enjoy.

  4. Tanya Khovanova’s Math Blog » Blog Archive » Eye Color and Math Ability:

    […] I wrote a theoretical essay titled “Math Career Predictor”, where I assumed that the distribution of math ability is different for men and women. In reality, […]

  5. TruePath:

    BTW I’d dispute your claim that being competitive makes one more inclined to pursue money. In my experience just the opposite.

    A friend of mine left math grad school to go work as a quant on wall street (major $$$) because he prefered the collaborative enviornment of working as a member of a team that working in business provided over the individualistic competition to get results and publish papers in academia.

    On the other hand one of the reasons I really like academia is that I’m competitive and love to argue (even when wrong) about whether a proof works or what happens in some case.

    Of course I also always failed those types of exams b/c I couldn’t really care enough to take it seriously so maybe I’m only disagreeing with your choice of the word ‘competitive’ rather than ‘ambitious’.

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