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Biases must be tackled to achieve gender equity in mathematics, scholars argue

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Margot Gerritsen, a Stanford assistant professor who teaches mathematics, said there are no differences in ability between her male and female students but that there are differences in attitude and perception.

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Actress Danica McKellar, the co-author of a mathematical proof, was among the panelists at “Proof and Prejudice: Women in Mathematics.”

BY LISA TREI

Mathematics has a public relations problem in this country, particularly among some girls and women, according to Hollywood actress Danica McKellar.

"Nobody out there is saying that smart is sexy and smart is important," said McKellar, the co-author of a mathematical proof. "Role models like Paris Hilton have everything to do with why this country is being dumbed down. We need better PR."

A year after Harvard President Lawrence Summers' remarks suggesting innate gender differences in science and math ability, the Institute for Research on Women and Gender (IRWG) on Feb. 7 hosted an event titled "Proof and Prejudice: Women in Mathematics," to examine the culture of mathematics in this country and women's experience as professional mathematicians.

At the opening, IRWG Director Londa Schiebinger took stock of what has unfolded since the Summers controversy. "In the year that has elapsed, many institutions, including Harvard, have stepped up efforts to remove all subtle and unexamined biases in institutions in efforts to make universities welcoming to women," she said, noting Stanford's recent announcement to support paid maternity leave for female graduate students.

Despite advances, unexamined biases remain within the culture of mathematics and science, Schiebinger said. "Many are held unconsciously by men and also by women—in university math departments as well as in our society in general," she added. For example, "Mathematicians are fat, scruffy and have no friends " is how the Times of London (Jan. 3, 2001) summarized the findings of a seven-nation study of schoolchildren's perceptions of typical mathematicians.

Schiebinger said the goal of the discussions "is to bring these biases to the surface, to examine them and, eventually, outgrow them."

Panel speakers acknowledged that progress is being made to improve gender equity in mathematics but that much still needs to be done.

Margot Gerritsen, a Stanford assistant professor of petroleum engineering who teaches mathematics, said there are no differences in ability between her male and female students. "There are big differences … in attitude and perception," she said. "I've seen much higher stress levels in women starting academic careers—about how they can contribute and fit in—than with the men." Male students are more likely to shrug off temporary setbacks, such as a poor test result, than women, she said.

Gerritsen argued that problems of perception begin in elementary school, where most teachers are women. If girls hear their female teachers say that math is difficult, she said, they are more likely to internalize it than boys. In middle and high school, the problem increases because the "brainy kid" is still portrayed by the media as "ugly, boring and a quite uncool character," Gerritsen said. "And often brainy is associated with being good at math. It's a big problem. I think the media does a very bad job creating a good atmosphere."

Stanford Associate Professor of Education Jo Boaler, an expert in mathematics education who spoke as a member of the audience, said elementary school teachers should not be blamed. Girls and boys achieve at similar levels in mathematics through school and at the undergraduate level, she said. "Girls are still achieving at very high levels across the board—that's the message that should go out there," she said. "The idea that they're not is damaging in its own right." But after college, she said, the numbers drop off. According to Schiebinger, women earn 46 percent of undergraduate math degrees in this country but represent only 8 percent of math professors.

Helen Moore, associate director of the American Institute of Mathematics in Palo Alto, discussed how the structure of graduate-level mathematics works against women. As an undergraduate math major, Moore was often the only woman in her classes. "I thought the others couldn't cut it," she said. When Moore entered the State University of New York-Stony Brook, the mathematics doctoral program had six women in the year above her and three women in her own class. All six above her left without doctorates, and Moore's two classmates left after three years.

Moore earned a doctorate in 1995 but was concerned about the program's poor retention rates for women. "I thought something was going on," she said. Moore explained that the way mathematical knowledge is tested early in the program, in a timed exam, is an obstacle because research shows that women work differently than men. "It's not clear whether the test actually tests mental ability," she said. "It may actually just test speed." Moore was able to convince her department to relax the time limits slightly.

Even women who make it as mathematicians often feel excluded from the broader culture, said Claudia Henrion, author of Women in Mathematics: The Addition of Difference. In researching the book, a recurring theme arose, she said: "The women were very accomplished but they still felt as outsiders in the math community." The talent exists, Henrion said, so the question must be, "How do we cultivate it and how do we create communities in which it is maximized?"

In that respect, academia still has a long way to go. About 60 percent of female faculty do not have children compared with about 30 percent of male professors, Henrion said. "The cost we're asking women to pursue this path is extremely high," she said. "They're being asked to choose in a way most men are not asked to choose. Until that gets addressed, it's a real disincentive for a lot of women."