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What are different ways we can get women to study mathematics? In my own experience, the higher the math class, the less women in the class. Most women tend to go on the math education track and do not have to take the more advanced classes. These more advanced classes can seem like hostile places for women, especially if they are the only female in the class, or only of a few female students.

As an educator, how can we encourage women to study math and become mathematicians?

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    $\begingroup$ One thing I have noticed is that even if the instructor and the course are good places for women, sometimes it is other students that are an issue (comments during study groups, etc that are outside your control). I wonder what are good suggestions on that front as well. $\endgroup$ – Chris C Mar 21 '14 at 1:03
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    $\begingroup$ The observation doesn't only apply to mathematics, but to "harder" fields (science, engineering) in general. Sadly, women have a very hard time getting accepted as equals in most professional fields, be it when studying or later when working. They get accepted for "soft" jobs (teaching, social services and such), but even there are rarely considered able to lead. $\endgroup$ – vonbrand Mar 21 '14 at 13:28
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    $\begingroup$ I have a problem with the question as it stands. How to encourage women... sounds like it is men asking and answering, and taking responsibility for this. A better question for men is: How are the cultures of math departments discouraging women from continuing? A better question for us all is what would make the study of mathematics more attractive to women? $\endgroup$ – Sue VanHattum Mar 24 '14 at 17:37
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    $\begingroup$ @SueVanHattum I have to disagree with you. The question as stated in the body of the post goes 'As an educator, how can we encourage... ' so it reads to me as asking what educators (of any gender) can do to encourage women to study mathematics. The fact that many of the answers are from men seems to me to be an artifact of the fact that most of the users on this site (and other such sites) happen to be men - as you point out in your insightful answer below. Is it not allowed for men to want to encourage women to study in mathematics? (Men can be allies!) $\endgroup$ – Aru Ray Mar 25 '14 at 13:39
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    $\begingroup$ In addition, I think the question you mention about how the cultures of mathematics departments might be discouraging women from continuing in mathematics is an excellent question and worth pursuing, but I think it is not really the same as what the current question is asking - the environment in math departments is one of many possible factors might be keeping women from STEM fields (other possible factors include social conditioning, actual biological predisposition (men and women are in actuality physiologically different), etc.) $\endgroup$ – Aru Ray Mar 25 '14 at 13:43
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(I am a woman in my last year of a PhD in low-dimensional topology, I'll be a postdoc in the fall, and I have research aspirations. I'm mostly trying to articulate how I got to this stage in my life. In a real sense, my answer shouldn't matter very much since the many things that keep women away from mathematics clearly didn't work on me too well, or on the several other women that are currently in mathematics; but perhaps it is still valuable to see what worked for me.)


As a woman and an Indian in mathematics, the following is one of my 'favorite' phenomena: stereotype threat. Here is a more detailed non-Wikipedia source. Briefly, there have been studies involving Asian-American girls, where the group who were reminded that they were of Asian descent performed better than the control group on a given math test, and the group that was reminded that they were girls performed worse. It's unclear to me how we should respond to this phenomenon as educators. One possibility is to straight up mention it to students, assuming that awareness might dampen its effects. Another might be to be entirely indifferent to the genders of our students (and play up other similarities. A woman in your class might be the only woman there, but she presumably belongs to shared groups with some of the other students.)

Personally, I grew up in upper middle class urban India, in a part of the country where it simply never occurred to me that women and men could have (markedly) differing mathematical abilities - gender discrimination abounds in India, but at least in our socio-economic class and region, it wasn't pronounced in terms of intellectual ability; in particular, my elder brother suffered from math anxiety - I expect that my desire to compete with him had at least something to do with my interest in the subject. In any case, intellectual pursuits were strongly encouraged for everyone. We revered the academically successful students (class ranks were a matter of avid discussion) and the top positions seemed equally distributed (in my high school, there was an award for highest aggregate score in math and physics in our 12th grade (national) exam, and I recall the genders being equally represented. Nonetheless, there were various such pursuits where I was often the only female participant (inter-school quiz competitions, etc.). The OP mentions such environments as being perceived as hostile to girls and women, but I did not particularly feel this way -- while my fellow participants were not the same gender, we had bunches of other similarities, for example, interest in participating in the relevant activities.

Anyway, as a child I didn't know that one could do mathematics for a living. I like to plan ahead for things (and I believe this is correlated with gender), and my youthful planning for my life didn't include mathematics since I just didn't even consider it an option. My love for mathematics was kindled at a very early age by my grandfather, whose games with my toddler-self consisted of doing additions and subtractions using little circles. Coming to the US as an undergraduate I was excited to learn about the concept of 'double majors' and my decision to pick up a second major in mathematics was motivated in part due to my interest in it, but also due to being a typical over-achiever. My decision to switch to mathematics for graduate study was motivated by the following: math was more intellectually challenging than my primary major (biochemistry), mathematical results contain way more certainty than anything one would be doing in biochemistry, and I just liked my mathematics professors more. As an undergraduate I did attend the Nebraska Conference for Undergraduate Women in Mathematics which was a valuable experience just to know how many women there are in mathematics.

Outside of my own personal experience, I really like the idea of Sonia Kovalesky Days. I was recently involved in an iteration as a panelist, and it was really exciting to see so many young women participating and seemingly having a great time with mathematics. One of the young women asked the panelists to give them names of notable women mathematicians, and I think even knowing about women mathematicians (and women in other STEM fields) would be neat for them. On which note, I'm also a fan of the AWM essay contest.


tl:dr Here are the factors which I personally credit for my being in mathematics:

  1. Being introduced to mathematics as a fun game as a young child
  2. Not being exposed to the notion that 'women cannot do mathematics' or that 'men are just better at mathematics than women'
  3. Ability to find other points of similarity with my fellow mathfans, as opposed to gender
  4. I am personally not too upset by competitiveness.
  5. Mathematics is generally difficult, so I consider it a challenge
  6. Mathematical results are long-lasting. If I've proved something correctly, it lasts forever, unlike most things in the other sciences.
  7. I like pretty much all the mathematicians I've met (y'all are really nice to young people)
  8. On most days, I'm not averse to standing out in a crowd, so I'm not too upset about looking quite different from the "average" mathematician

I attribute any success I might have to having excellent advisors, teachers, and mentors throughout my life; they were almost all male, which is unsurprising, since most mathematicians are.

Here are some possible steps one could take as an educator to interest more women in mathematics:

  1. Do not buy in to the notion that 'women simply cannot do math' (there is some amount of research showing that teachers call on boys more often than girls, etc. Presumably being aware of such findings might help us be more equitable)
  2. Point out, early on, that mathematics is something one can do for a living, and in fact it has tons of applications in all sorts of places.
  3. Point out examples of notable female mathematicians
  4. Encourage participation in/or organize events like the SK Days, the NCUWM, or the AWM Essay contest.
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I think there is no clear answer, although there has been some research on this topic. I remember one study which focussed on gender differences of university math students:

Mischau, A., Blättel-Mink, B., Daniels, J., & Lehmann, J. (2004). Doing gender in mathematics: indications for more gender equality in German universities? Bielefeld: IFF.

The researchers found that women have partly different interests, e.g.

  • Women do less emphasize the intellectual challenge and also important applications as reason for their interest.
  • With regard to applications of mathematics, women are more interested in "social" applications like teaching in school, medicine and psychology. Men stronger focus on technical applications (physics, engineering, economics, computer science). Men also report slightly stronger interest in research.

Roughly speaking: the purer the maths, the less women are interested in it. Presumably, even women who decided to study mathematics enter university with different interest profiles. Consequently, we should have a look on gender differences at school.

Research showed differences even in primary school. We have more boys than girls taking part in math competitions, although there is no (or hardly any) overall difference in mathematical ability (see Hanna, Hyde et al., Ma, Lindberg et al.). Differences can be found if we look at attributions (e.g. when they solved a task, girls might think "the task was easy" or "I was lucky" whereas boys would rather think "I am generally good at maths".), see Dickhäuser & Meyer. This might be due to behaviour of parents, teachers and peers (in short: the society). But that's a private speculation.

All in all, it looks like the phenomenon you described is just the tip of the iceberg - maybe the result of hundreds of situations in childhood. I have no clear answer, but maybe I could illustrate it's not so easy to get one.

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First, we need to be aware of the ways that women are discouraged, and when those are not related to what mathematics is, we need to change the culture. Does math have to be approached as a competitive sport? No.

Related to this concern, please note that I am the only obvious woman in the top 40 users here. There are plenty of women blogging about math and math education. What about this culture alienates women? I think people do not try very hard to be diplomatic when they disagree with a poster: "This question does not belong.", "This is not an answer." I have a particular goal, and see myself as a central actor in the math education online discussion world (as a blogger at least), so I have persevered. But if I were less motivated, I might have decided the aggravation wasn't worth it.

My story may help others understand subtler issues which are not related to obvious sexism. I got my masters in a program that was easy, and enjoyed it immensely. I decided to go for a phd, and attended UCSD. It was very hard (as was U of Michigan, where I did my undergrad), and I didn't like it. I knew going in that that might happen, and quit very quickly. My interest was in teaching, so for me it wasn't a bad thing. But I am considered one of the casualties, since I didn't 'go on'. And I love math. But I also want to help others in the work I do. My interest in math education satisfies my passion for math, along with my interest in making a difference in the world. Is there a way to change the way we structure the study of higher math so that someone like me would want to continue? Maybe. I'm not sure yet what it would look like.

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    $\begingroup$ The point on math as competitive sport is interesting, since many budding mathematicians get interested in the subject through math competitions. (These are certainly popular for teenagers in the U.S., Russia and Hungary.) Do you think that those math competitions put off girls who are interested in math? If so, what other mathematical activities might appeal to them more? $\endgroup$ – user173 Mar 24 '14 at 18:24
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    $\begingroup$ @MattF. Is it really true that many get interested in the subject through competitions? (At least for some I think it is rather the other way round: they are interested in math and thus they participate in these competitions and the preparatory course, since this is basically the only or at least most obvious option to pursue this interest.) [This is a bit tangential, since the "get interested" is not really central to your point. And I think you ask a good question. Since these competiotion might form the early perception, a bit irrespective of which is cause and consequence.] $\endgroup$ – quid Mar 24 '14 at 18:37
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    $\begingroup$ I'm a woman, I do use my real name on SE, but it just happens to not sound particularly 'female' (At best, I'm in the 30s among this site's current users). Anyway, the internet is not kind to people with noticeable feminine names : vice.com/en_uk/read/twitter-online-misogynistic-abuse (I imagine such things don't happen so much on stackexchange sites, but it's habit to stick to a single gender-neutral identity on the internet) $\endgroup$ – Aru Ray Mar 24 '14 at 20:16
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    $\begingroup$ @MattF. Yes, I know such numbers. This was not my point. My point was that you claimed that many get interested in the subject through the competition. Had you written many were involved as you do know I have no objection. There is however (at least in my mind) a significant difference in the two assertions. The first suggests that the competitive nature was relevant in sparking the interest while the latter does not. [Actually typically when such competion performances get discussed IMO there is an unfortunate mixing of causation and correlation going on. But this is a bit off-t now.] $\endgroup$ – quid Mar 24 '14 at 20:31
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    $\begingroup$ I am very interested in your saying that women are alienated by non-diplomatic answers such as "This is wrong." Can you say a bit more about it? I would think it probable that not only women find such discourse alienating. $\endgroup$ – Andrej Bauer Mar 25 '14 at 8:04
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Two fundamental issues, in my observation: pathetically, quite a few (male) people subconsciously decide that, while they are not athletes or whatever, their machismo can be proven in ... mathematics. By math contests and being aggressive in class. Vehicle for ego. As a consequence, there's the "oop, it's not macho if chix can do it, too" unfortunate-riff...

And, the next point is that there is indeed a substantial tradition of exhorting kids to engage by invoking machismo.

Aaaand, there's the traditional "omuerta" of "not asking questions" (because it reveals weakness, which a good Spartan would never do, blah-blah-blah), which seems statistically less "reasonable" to females than males. And, srsly, what is the point of "classes" if asking the natural questions is belittled? Crazy! From an intellectual, pedagogical, and social perspective.

This ground presents serious difficulties for encouraging women (or any person not feeling at home in the nerdish pseudo-macho environment) to engage with mathematics.

An uncomfortable corollary is that the traditional quick-nerdy-combative kids have to be discouraged, or redirected. This is not easy, given the ambient culture that reinforeces this.

There are further subsequent problems... too many to explain in short. Perhaps people who're interested in my take on this should email me.

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    $\begingroup$ What do you mean by the "traditional quick-nerdy-combative kids"? Do you mean the students that think they know everything and shoot down the other students and roll their eyes at "easy" questions? $\endgroup$ – Felix Y. Mar 21 '14 at 1:37
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    $\begingroup$ @FelixT., yes, those, among others... The ambience that it's a contest, that there can be only one "winner", etc., is not good. $\endgroup$ – paul garrett Mar 21 '14 at 2:06
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I see the original question as actually two questions asked here:

  1. How do we engage women into studying mathematics?

  2. How do we get women to become mathematicians?

Studying mathematics for the goal of becoming mathematicians (pure, applied, etc.) is a subset to the first question. For the first question, I have read about some of Jo Boaler's research in gender and mathematics education: http://gender.stanford.edu/news/2012/sugar-and-spice-and%E2%80%A6-math-under-achievement

Essentially, it comes down to how classes are being taught. I have the impression that mathematics education is traditionally set up in a competitive environment, which has the tendency to turn off the collaborative learning aspects that academia is supposed to foster. If everything in the learning environment is geared to working individually and getting the technically correct answers without having the space and time to develop deeper understanding and allowing a safe environment to compare and discuss answers, then it tends to turn off the girls (and possible future mathematicians). Content has less of a bearing to motivation than the delivery and environment of mathematics education.

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One way to interest women in mathematics is to teach applications, including statistics.

Consider the following survey of 2012 doctorates in the U.S. in the mathematical sciences:

\begin{matrix} \text{Men} &\text{Women} &\text{% Women} &\text{Type of Program}\\ 653& 233 & 28\% &\text{public math programs}\\ 204& 62 & 23\% &\text{private math programs}\\ 105& 56 & 35\% &\text{applied mathematics}\\ 195& 118 & 38\% &\text{statistics}\\ 87& 85 & 49\% &\text{biostatistics}\\ \end{matrix}

So 45% of the women are getting PhDs in applied fields, while only 31% of the men are.

The choice of topics to teach is only one way of encouraging women to study mathematics, but it is an important way.

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    $\begingroup$ Causality or simply correlation? Not easy to say just from such numbers? $\endgroup$ – Nicola Ciccoli Jun 5 '15 at 14:47
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    $\begingroup$ @NiccolaCiccoli, the data is consistent with my causal hypothesis that women prefer applied math to pure math. What alternative hypothesis might explain the high correlation? $\endgroup$ – user173 Jun 7 '15 at 12:57
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    $\begingroup$ If a society is culturally oriented towards "applied math is a women thing, pure math is not" this is much different than saying women prefer applied math. In such case teaching applications will only reinforce a culturally determined opinion which, I think, should be reversed. You're proposing to cure symptoms rather than causes, in my opinion. $\endgroup$ – Nicola Ciccoli Jun 8 '15 at 7:46
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    $\begingroup$ Teach more applications to everyone! $\endgroup$ – user173 Jun 8 '15 at 12:17

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