Why Are We Losing Female Mathematicians?

Sanya Took an IntegralThe data from annual surveys carried out by the American Mathematical Society shows the same picture year after year: the percentage of females in different categories decreases as the category level rises. For example, here is the data for 2006:

Category Percentage of Women
Graduating Math Majors 41
PhDs Granted 32
Fresh PhD hires in academic jobs 27
Full-time Faculty 27
Full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty 12

The high percentage of female math majors means that a lot of women do like mathematics. Why aren’t women becoming professors of mathematics? In the picture to the left, little Sanya fearlessly took her first integral. I hope, even as an adult, she will never be afraid of integrals.

I am one of the organizers of the Women and Mathematics Program at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton In 2009 we had a special seminar devoted to discussing this issue. Here is the report of our discussion based on the notes that Rajaa Al Talli took during the meeting.

Many of us felt, for the following three reasons, that the data doesn’t represent the full picture.

First, the different stages correspond to women of different ages; thus, the number of tenured faculty should be compared, not to the number of current math majors, but rather to women who majored in math many years ago. The percentage of female PhDs in mathematics has been increasing steadily for the past several years. As a result, we expect an eventual increase in the number of full-time female faculty.

Second, international women mathematicians might be having a great impact on the numbers. Let’s examine a hypothetical situation. If many female professors come to the US after completing their studies in other countries, it would be logical to assume that they would raise the numbers. But since the numbers are falling, we might be losing more females than we think. Or, it could be the opposite: international graduate students complete a PhD in mathematics in the USA and then go back to their own countries. In this case we would be losing fewer females to professorships than the numbers seem to suggest. Unfortunately, we can’t really say which case is true as we do not know the data on international students and professors.

Third, many women who major in mathematics also have second majors. For example, the women who have a second major in education probably plan to become teachers instead of pursuing an academic career. It would be interesting to find the data comparing women who never meant to have careers in science with those women who left because they were discouraged. If we are losing women from the sciences because they decide not to pursue scientific careers, then at least that is their choice.

It is also worth studying why so few women are interested in careers in mathematics in the first place. Changing our culture or applying peer pressure in a different direction might change the ambitions of a lot of people.

We discussed why the data in the table doesn’t represent the full picture. On the other hand, there are many reasons why women who can do mathematics and want to do mathematics might be discouraged from pursuing an academic career:

  • Marriage and children distract from mathematics.
  • The lack of legal protections for pregnant women, of required maternity leave and of childcare provision.
  • The cultural skepticism that women can do math on a high level.
  • An educational system that tends to tell students that math is very difficult, thus discouraging women from the early stages of their academic life.
  • Boys tend to be more competitive than girls.
  • The lack of job opportunities.
  • A career in math often requires moving.

Our group proposed many solutions to help retain women in mathematics:

  1. Find a way to get men pregnant as well.
  2. Incorporate ideas from other countries (like Portugal), where they don’t have this problem.
  3. Increase the level of social care for pregnant women and young children.
  4. Create new laws to protect the rights of pregnant women.
  5. Educate secondary, high school and college math teachers how to present math — such as through games — as an interesting subject, not as a difficult one.

At the end of our meeting, everyone accepted Ingrid Daubechies‘ proposal that we do the following:

Each woman in mathematics should take as her responsibility the improvement of the mathematical environment in which she works. If every woman helps change what’s going on in her university or the school where she teaches, that will help solve the problem on the larger scale.

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23 Comments

  1. Sue VanHattum:

    Thank you, Tanya. I’m glad to see this information. The 12% is the most distressing number there – quite a drop from the 27%. I’m part of the first stage fallout. I have a master’s degree but didn’t finish a PhD. I have found that I need to work with people more than I could as a math student. I intend to continue learning math throughout my life, but I won’t ever have a Phd.

  2. Anonymous:

    One possible explanation, which you’ll appreciate as a mathematician, has to do with different standard deviations. There’s an idea going around that while men and women are equal on average, men have higher standard deviation when it comes to math skill. This implies that the people with the lowest math skills will be predominately men. It also implies the people with the highest math skills will also be predominately men. The higher you go (graduating math major, PhD, etc.), the more it becomes necessary to lie on the extreme side of the bell curve…

  3. Anon:

    @Anonymous: what about the under-representation of minorities in the elite ranks of mathematics? I bet even as Anonymous you wouldn’t dare to espouse a similar theory explaining why most of these brilliant males are also white…

    No one is going to tell a girl to her face nowadays that she can’t do math because of her sex. But the climate is still not entirely hospitable to women. A few depressing things I’ve observed in the last year:
    -male faculty members telling jokes about female mathematicians around the table at a formal department dinner.
    -graduate students at the lunch table at a conference making fun of a brilliant woman mathematician on account of her masculine appearance and style. Their explanation of her hair-cut, sartorial choices, and bearing? Autism.
    -although this is an ongoing topic of debate, the prevailing consensus among math guys seems to be that math girls are undesirable as romantic partners. This goes beyond looks. I’ve heard a lot of grad students say the thought of dating another mathematician is a turn-off. It’s not considered sexy to be a woman in math.
    -that said, there’s a tendency of men in math to treat the small pool of women in the field as their harem. Easy prey.
    -finally, a certain top-tier math department not only has no female senior faculty, it has 6 restrooms with urinals and only one restroom for the ladies! While there are rumors of imminent female hires, I don’t think they’ll ever do anything about the bathroom situation. Girls going into math might consider learning to pee standing up.

  4. Felipe Pait:

    I like Ingrid’s proposal. Men should get onboard as well. One related issue: one aspect of the competitive distortion of academia is the emphasis on quantity as opposed to quality. The number of papers a scientist writes is irrelevant from any point of view – it doesn’t contribute to the advancement of the arts & sciences, nor to betterment of humanity. It is part of a competitive game, and as such has a role to play in motivating and evaluating individuals, but that’s it. I believe that if academia came to emphasize quality of work everybody would benefit, and women more so, because the systems is rigged in favor of the powers that be.

    As for number 1, it’s interesting, but I’m afraid I’m a little old for that 😉

  5. Sue VanHattum:

    Anonymous is easily convinced. Google Mertz for data that counters this silly idea (which was proposed by Larry Summers, in defense of Harvard’s poor proportion of women math faculty). The data shows that the difference between men and women varies widely between countries. That wouldn’t be a genetic difference, but a cultural one.

  6. Igor:

    In other professions the situation is even worse. I study computer science and from 137 students we had only 4 women.

  7. Mark James:

    I’m sure you’ve seen this, but I’ll mention it anyway. I show Vi Hart’s math blog ( http://vihart.com/ ) to my kids all the time. She does an amazing job of showing off the interesting side of math. Unfortunately at the elementary level in Canada at least, math means arithmetic, and kids don’t get a lot of exposure to what makes it interesting.

  8. Anonymous:

    @Anon:

    “what about the under-representation of minorities in the elite ranks of mathematics? I bet even as Anonymous you wouldn’t dare to espouse a similar theory explaining why most of these brilliant males are also white…”

    That’s a very good point. Of course, in stating it, we’re implicitly assuming there are only two races, White and Black, and ignoring the many Asians and Indians in every math department. But it’s still a very good point since blacks are obviously underrepresented. What I have noticed is that at least with my very limited experience, departments are quite happy to hire qualified black mathematicians, when they can find them.

    “male faculty members telling jokes about female mathematicians around the table at a formal department dinner.”

    If the genders were swapped, would you still complain? I think if you look hard enough you’ll find jokes about any subgroup of mathematicians.

    “graduate students at the lunch table at a conference making fun of a brilliant woman mathematician on account of her masculine appearance and style. Their explanation of her hair-cut, sartorial choices, and bearing? Autism.”

    It sounds like she was very eccentric. A man with those eccentricities would probably also be made fun of. It’s terrible, I agree. Let’s not make the fallacy: “attacking specific woman = attacking all women”

    “although this is an ongoing topic of debate, the prevailing consensus among math guys seems to be that math girls are undesirable as romantic partners”

    I’m not sure one should choose math based on finding romantic partners. Anyway, I find this claim highly debatable (as you acknowledged). I’m a math guy and I think most of the math girls are hot, math is a turn on. Which leads me right into your trap:

    “that said, there’s a tendency of men in math to treat the small pool of women in the field as their harem. Easy prey.”

    First, this blatantly contradicts your previous point, second it’s a trap. It’s also highly suspect on its own. There might be one or two men like this in a department, but then again, there might be one or two women (reverse the genders and see whether feminists still complain– there might even be some interesting mathematical symmetry type things here)

    “finally, a certain top-tier math department not only has no female senior faculty, it has 6 restrooms with urinals and only one restroom for the ladies!”

    That is odd, I wonder whether the university admins know about it. It’s not like that at any department I’ve been to.

  9. Anonymous:

    @Sue:

    I tried googling [Mertz] and couldn’t find what you were referring to.

    Are there a significant number of countries where the opposite holds, that men are underrepresented in higher math? I doubt it. Summers’ hypothesis explains the data well. Speaking without seeing the Mertz article (despite trying), thus acknowledging I could be mistaken… it doesn’t seem like the fact things vary over countries, is relevant. Nature-nurture is a continuum, not a dichotomy.

  10. JBL:

    Other possible explanations: one can always count on some asshole to show up on a blog explaining to women that it’s not their fault they’re underrepresented, it’s just that they are genetically inferior. Fuck off, anonymous.

  11. JBL:

    By the way, I particularly like the condescending “Haven’t you girls heard of the standard deviation?” Asshole.

  12. JBL:

    On another note: Tanya, what is the situation in Portugal to which one of the solutions refers?

  13. Nancy:

    this might be interesting to you:

    http://meta.mathoverflow.net/discussion/985/woman-in-mathoverflow/#Item_0

  14. Mike:

    Alas, two of the suggestions ask for help from the government.

    (a) Increase the level of social care for pregnant women and young children.
    (b) Create new laws to protect the rights of pregnant women.

    I propose that laws lead to diminished stature because success will be attributed to the laws rather than the hard work of the mathematician. But since there are many readers of these blog posts, does someone have a notion of what would satisfy desires (a) and (b)?

  15. Sheldon:

    Tanya, you disappoint me.

    I started reading your blog only because a Google search related to IMO books and training produced a link to your website and blog.

    But as a female academic at MIT, your conspicuous silence regarding a recent report about female professors at MIT (ref. New York Times, Gains, and Drawbacks, for Female Professors by KATE ZERNIKE Published: March 21, 2011) questions the value of reading your blog.

    Here you are a female academic at MIT and you have opinion i.e. no blog entry about a recent report addressing the issue of female professors at MIT? If I am not going to read a female academic on the inside from you, then from whom? Whose blog should I be reading instead?

    The report you refer as subject of this blog entry is more than six months old. Even I wrote an reaction essay to an New York Times op-ed piece against the writer’s misunderstanding of Larry Summers’ claim about females in science the profession.

    Disappointment aside, concerning the suggestion of adopting Portugal as some model, because as a Google search found report states, 80% of mathematics students are women, but nothing about their subsequent presence as tenure professors in higher ed departments, tells us nothing about why we should copy Portugal or that they are doing any better.
    There was one report that cites Portugal has having the highest number of women teaching mathematics, but does not parse out the difference between K-12 education versus teaching at post-secondary education institution.
    By some measure, women still out-number men when it comes teaching mathematics here in the United States.

    Regarding your group’s proposal
    1. get men pregnant as well — absurdity does not respect the suggested seriousness you think this subject warrants
    2. Incorporate ideas from other countries (like Portugal), where they don’t have this problem. — I refer to the comment I made in the previous paragraph. Also, let me ask why?
    3. Increase the level of social care for pregnant women and young children. — How and why would this directly impact necessarily increase in women becoming tenured?
    4. Create new laws to protect the rights of pregnant women. — More laws! What liberty is being deprived of pregnant women that they require new laws? Aside from instances of rape which falls outside the scope of the current topic, pregnant women are pregnant by choice.
    5. Educate … how to present math — such as through games — as an interesting subject, not as a difficult one. — Heck, that may apply to K-12 math education in general not just specific to women or other socio-political minorities. As one who has taught 7th & 8th Algebra, to recalcitrant students, the biggest problem I experience is motivation. Fun & games is nice, but if the students do not care about the subject, no amount of fun or how interesting the subject may be will attract their motivated participation to learn the subject.
    To date, Vi Hart does a better job with her Math is Cool campaign than all the educational reform bills and theories.

    For now, I think I shall stick with Tao’s blog an not just because I had him for Math 245A&B.

  16. Tanya Khovanova:

    Sheldon, you disappoint me.

    You haven’t read my essay. These are notes from a seminar, they do not necessarily reflect my opinion. The seminar for held at IAS, so there was no reason to discuss MIT. The seminar was in 2009, so I am surprised that you expected us to comment on 2011 article.

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  18. Philip Petrov:

    As far as I know the problem is not (or at least it is not seen) in Bulgaria too. Actually it’s the opposite – I see much more (NEW) female mathematicians than man. Tbe “old school” (from the socialist times) are almost all man. Now in both university and school I see mostly women.

    Why the young female mathematicians conquered the academic jobs? Easy answer – the salaries are too low, so a man can’t afford to feed his family and be a mathematician at the same time. I am really sorry for this segregation comment, but we are living in a true world and this is the reality.

  19. Peter Gerdes:

    As always I think it’s an important topic to be explored but you can’t reach conclusions on such sloppy evidence.

    Not all math majors are the same. The student who studies a couple terms of calculus and then some linear algebra at a liberal arts school just isn’t the same sort of student as someone who does math at a major research institution.

    It might well be that *research* math appeals less to woman while algorithmic style math is more appealing to them. Indeed, I suggest this is likely indirectly true.

    1) Women recieve far more social status from teacher praise and studies show they tend to be more interested in pleasing the teacher than boys in HS. Since HS math sets you up to fail at research math we may be encouraging only those women who won’t like math to do it. I know if I hadn’t been so mad at math in HS that I got my own reading material I would have forever hated math instead of becoming a major.

    2) Research in math requires strong argument (no that proof can’t work) between friends and colleagues. In general (social? biological?) men are much more inclined and easy with butting heads and insults without harm to their relationship than are women in the states. Maybe it’s because they are taught to be less assertive but it’s a reasonable hypothesis about a factor.

  20. Chris:

    I don’t understand the problem here, I’m afraid. Why do the numbers of females specifically have to be higher?
    Why is it when males fail to become professors it is due to individual choices or lack of ability, but when females fail it is due to some outside factor that must be fought, preferably by new laws?
    I only care about mathematics and here it seems from history that the subject hasn’t suffered due to a lack of females doing it. Mathematics has done rather well with almost only male mathematicians at the frontier..
    What would be accomplished for mathematics (the subject) by having more females in the field or equal numbers of males / females?
    I find this kind of activism is potentially damaging to society to be completely honest.

  21. Sally:

    I don’t think the issue is unique to mathematicians. I am an ex-IMO participant (from Australia) who is now a medical doctor. If one compares the number of medical graduates compared to those working at a high level as specialists/professors, women are also underrepresented in the latter group. Or the same if you compare numbers of economics/commerce graduates with those of CEOs/company directors.

    Less women work at a higher level in general compared to men who have similar qualifications. This is probably, as you point out, largely due to family-raising responsibilities. Women are also more likely to value a work-life balance and maintaining good relationships with family and friends, rather than being ambitious in the workplace. (Possibly not entirely a bad thing!)

  22. Chester Escorts:

    Hello! It sounds like she was very eccentric. A man with those eccentricities would probably also be made fun of. It’s terrible, I agree. Let’s not make the fallacy: “attacking specific woman = attacking all women” Thank you.

  23. Hatice:

    There’s a book called “Athena Unbound” raising the same question. One can find the data about the gender distribution of mathematicians in other countries like Brazil, Turkey, Greece, Portugal, UK, Austria, Mexico, Netherlands. The picture does not get better since the number of women may increase but the field is not as prestigious in most of the developing countries.
    I can try to answer why we are loosing women? I believe although it’s fun to do mathematics once you get your hands on, it does not look like an appealing job from outside. It looks like a job with a lot of sacrifice but little award.
    I saw many successful mathematicians who are elevated with success but it’s really difficult to desire to be one of them if you know you will have other things to care equally or more than your job. I am not sure if -as a woman- I want to adapt the male mathematician model in order to be successful. Maybe these women who did not want to be in academia noticed that they have to fight with the prejudice (since we all can feel that expectation of success from us is quite low) to be in a field that requires so much devotion. I really doubt if it is worth it, mostly because of the prejudice and the environment that makes you feel lonely. And it’s true that a man can be slightly eccentric but it’s unacceptable for a woman to be so. Women are expected to be first “women” and only afterwards whatever their profession requires, while there is not such a demand from men.
    The pressure on women is definitely much more. Women have too many attachments, they feel responsible to the family, society, elder, younger… These do not go well with a career in science.
    I am not saying it’s bad to be a mathematician,it’s HARD.