Stereotypes about math detrimental to women’s success

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By Zahra Haque, Staff Columnist

It is often assumed that women are bad at math. Women are told time and time again that they are genetically disadvantaged in quantitative fields. This view is dangerously wrong. No legitimate evidence backs the claim of male biological superiority in math. It is instead decades of gender inequity and stereotyping that have impacted math performance of women.

Evidence demonstrates that social, not biological factors, are at play when it comes to gender disparities. A 2008 study tracked the scores of 15-year-olds’ on an international assessment across 40 countries. Although boys outperformed girls in math on average, researchers found that the gender gap closely correlated with the extent of gender inequality in each country. In Scandinavian countries, where inequality was lowest, the gender gap practically vanished. A more recent study from Columbia Business School asked hiring managers to choose a new employee for a simple mathematical task. The managers knew nothing about any of the applicants besides their genders. The result was that men were twice as likely to get hired by both male and female managers on the sole basis of gender. Evidently, the gender gap cannot be explained by female genetics. Social disparities between men and women and negative perceptions of female math ability have deterred success of women in math and science for generations.

The dearth of women in more quantitative undergraduate majors is a testament to this. The ratio of male to female economic majors is roughly three to one, and women comprise less than 20 percent of the nation’s computer science graduates. One might assume that women are simply not interested in technical disciplines. This is also not true, as girls that attend all-girl schools are more likely to pursue careers in math, science and technology. But too often, the perception of STEM professions as a boys’ club prevents intelligent, talented women from pursuing them long-term. Many lose interest due to the unwelcoming environment. The numbers not only reveal troubling disparities, but also have greater implications for national and global progress.

In the absence of women from leadership positions in fields of math and science, the industry deprives itself of a talent pool that has valuable perspectives on — and perhaps solutions to — critical issues facing the world today. Diversity in perspective can be highly meaningful in addressing issues. For example, in economics — another field in which women are trailing — male and female economists often have different perspectives. Male economists tend to favor more right-wing policies such as school vouchers while female economists are more likely to support left-wing policies like mandating companies to pay for employee health insurance. By having more female economists influence policies, the scope of addressing problems would change. New and perhaps improved ways of thinking about the world’s biggest economic problems could emerge.

Changing assumptions about gender and academic ability is imperative. Society must work toward an environment in which women not only make contributions to math and science without having to battle a debilitatingly sexist culture, but where women are actively encouraged to make contributions. Women do have quantitative, academic potential — society just has to stop telling them that they are bad at math.

Email Zahra Haque at [email protected]