Women, Math, and the Gender Gap

As a female math student, I often find myself in the minority in my classes. In fact, in one class, I am one of only three girls. Now, if I were young and single, I might really appreciate these odds, however, as a mother of four daughters, I find it rather concerning. Recently in class, we studied the work of Sophie Germain, her contributions to mathematics, and the study of Fermat’s Last Theorem. We also discussed some of the challenges she faced as a woman scholar in the early 1800’s. I have been thinking about the roles of women in math, and I have wondered–even with so many programs to encourage women in the fields of math and science, why do we still see such a large gender gap?

Christine Ladd-Franklin By Smithsonian Institution from United States [see page for license], via Wikimedia Commons.

Christine Ladd-Franklin
By Smithsonian Institution from United States [see page for license], via Wikimedia Commons.

Women have truly struggled over the years to have equal opportunities for education, and, while in many subjects women have equal footing, they have been slower to catch up in math and science. Historically, women who have contributed to math have had a difficult time pursuing higher education. Sophie Germain had to use the pseudonym of a male student to submit papers to the university. Almost 60 years later, another promising mathematician, Christine Ladd, also had a difficult time obtaining a fellowship at John Hopkins University because of her gender. Her experience is described as follows:

[T]he university first announced its fellowship program in 1876, and one of the first applications to arrive was one signed “C. Ladd.” The credentials accompanying the application indicated such outstanding ability that a fellowship in mathematics was awarded to the applicant, site [sic] unseen, and was accepted. When it was discovered that the “C.” stood for Christine, several embarrassed trustees argued she had used trickery to gain admission, and the board immediately moved to revoke the offer. They failed to reckon, however, with the irascible Professor James J. Sylvester, stellar member of the first faculty. In 1870 Sylvester had been named the world’s greatest living mathematician by the Encyclopedia Britannica, and his presence at Hopkins was a real coup for the struggling university. He was indispensable and knew it, in an ideal position to insist on virtually anything he wanted; in this case, he had read Christine Ladd’s articles in English mathematical journals, and he insisted upon receiving the obviously gifted young woman as his student. Miss Ladd was admitted as a full-time graduate student in the fall of 1878. Though she held a fellowship for three years, the trustees forbade that her name be printed in circulars with those of other fellows, for fear of setting a precedent. Dissension over her continued presence forced one of the original trustees to resign (Riddle, 2014).

Despite such difficulties, woman continued to push forward in mathematics. Now, women don’t face the same discrimination in education; in fact, there are many programs designed to encourage girls to pursue their interests in math, and research shows that the gender gap may be narrowing in education. An article from Time Magazine, titled “The Myth about the Math Gender Gap”, reports about a study by researchers at University of Wisconsin and University of California, Berkeley. The study found that there was very little difference between the scores of girls and boys on federally mandated tests. They also found that equal numbers of boys and girls were taking advanced math classes in high school. This, researchers concluded, is why we are seeing a decrease in the gender gap. An earlier study from 1990 found that although test scores were equal in the elementary years, boys outpaced the girls in high school years. This coincides with the fact that fewer girls at the time were continuing in higher level math classes (Park, 2008).

However, there does continue to be a gap in higher education. Although equal numbers of male and female students are graduating with bachelor degrees in math, fewer women continue to the graduate level and even fewer to the associate professor level. There are several theories about what may be responsible for this gap. Another article in Time titled, “Explaining the Complicated Women + Math Formula”, explores different thoughts on this subject. The article specifically looks at four different theories—ability, prejudice, interest or choice, and the affect of family roles (Luscombe, 2010).

“As far as ability goes, studies are pretty clear that on average women and men are about the same at math” (Ibid). While an equal number of male and female students graduate with bachelor degrees in math related fields, only 25% of PhDs are given to females and “at the next level, tenure-track associate professor, the proportion of females shrinks to single digits” (Ibid). With this information, we can conclude that a large number of women who have the ability to continue at the higher level of math related fields are not continuing.

Ceci explored the possibility that women were experiencing prejudice from male college faculty in the hiring process, however, this actually showed to be the opposite. “We found that if candidates of matched ability are applying for a position, women are slightly more likely to get the job,” says Ceci.

Interest and Choice
Williams and Ceci found that the interests of girls may be another factor. While some boys may be very good at math, the girls who excel at math also excel at other subjects. It has also been found that girls tend to be more interested in working with living things rather than inanimate objects. Therefore while capable of excelling at math careers, girls may be choosing to follow other interests.

Family and Social Roles
The final factor they found was that, when given the choice, women would choose to follow family interests over their careers. The typical track to a tenure position came at a time when many women were interested in starting families and opportunities were no longer available if they wanted to come back to their career at a later time. “Ceci and Williams believe that the solution lies in changing the way tenure is attained. ‘The tenure structure in academe demands that women having children make their greatest intellectual contributions contemporaneously with their greatest physical and emotional achievements,’ they write, ‘a feat not expected of men.’ The process could be spaced out, candidates given more time. ‘There’s no reason to do it the way we do it, except tradition,’ says Williams (Luscombe, 2010).”

Although women are making huge strides in narrowing the gender gap in mathematics and I have a lot of reasons to be optimistic that my daughters will have opportunities that women throughout history did not, there are definitely still issues to be addressed. Some feel that women are socialized away from math and science, which may be true, but there are definitely other issues at play. The important thing to recognize as we look to the future is that there are no simple solutions and no one single factor at play. Ultimately, we want to ensure that those women who want to pursue careers in math have every opportunity to do so and that the field is free of the prejudice and stereotypes of the past.


Luscombe, Belinda; October 28, 2010 “Explaining the Complicated Women + Math Formula.” Time. http://healthland.time.com/2010/10/28/the-complicated-women-math-formula/

Park, Alice; July 24, 2008, “The Myth of the Math Gender Gap.” Time. July 24, 2008. http://content.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1826399,00.html

Riddle, Larry; January 10, 2014, Biographies of Women Mathematicians—Christine Ladd-Franklin. http://www.agnesscott.edu/lriddle/women/ladd.htm


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