Truth About Math, Science and Women

Growing up, Daddy said that it was just the order of the universe: “Men are smarter than women.”

Now that Harvard University President Lawrence Summers has apologized for recent remarks about differences that might make women less capable in math and science, I can’t help but wonder how many men believe women are less productive or lack the mental ability to compete. Recent studies destroy this myth. Women are indeed holding their own.

According to a Department of Education study, the academic edge boys once held over girls has disappeared. In fact, fourth- and eighth-grade girls now outperform their male classmates in reading and writing tests. The 2002 data also found that girls have caught up to boys in math and science.

The 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study produced good news for both genders. U.S. fourth- and eighth-graders scored above their peers in many countries, and eighth-graders improved their math and science scores. Unfortunately, this is roughly the age girls become less interested in both.

University of Oklahoma Professor Donna Nelson has completed an analysis of tenure, ethnicity and gender at math and science departments for the top 50 research universities in the USA. The results are telling. The “Nelson Diversity Surveys” found that in 14 disciplines, the percentage of full professors who are women ranges from 3%-15%. In computer science alone, she found no black, Hispanic or Native American female faculty either tenured or on track for tenure.

Are girls encouraged when they encounter women in science and engineering? Nelson cites one answer from an article published in Harvard Magazine: The percentage of women on staff is “the most accurate predictor of subsequent success for female undergraduates.”

If this is true, these top-ranked schools could use some tutoring in diversity. In 2002, according to Nelson, Harvard’s math department had 16 tenured and tenure-track faculty. Of the 14 white professors, one was a woman. Two were Asian men. Of the 50 universities surveyed, half the recipients of bachelor of science degrees in math are women, but they make up less than 10% of the faculty teaching them.

Women in academia have studied hard to overcome society’s barriers. Yet too often, they have been denied respect or the job security that comes with tenure.

If men won’t open the door for a qualified woman, they should at least get out of the way so she can open it herself.


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