Cornell University researchers Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams open their new book, The Mathematics of Sex, with a description of the infamously difficult Honors Math 55 course at Harvard University. They write:
It is legendary among high school math prodigies, who hear terrifying stories about it at their computer camps and Math Olympiads. Some go to Harvard just to have the opportunity to enroll in honors Math 55 ... Each year as many as 50 students sign up but at least half drop out within a few weeks ...The final class roster, according to The Crimson, is 45 percent Jewish, 18 percent Asian, 100 percent male."
It’s a compelling anecdote for a book that explores the reasons why males are overrepresented in mathematics and mathematically intensive scientific professions such as physics, computer science, chemistry, operations research, mathematics, and engineering—even after all the strides women and girls have made in those fields in recent years. They note, for instance, that on math aptitude tests taken in high school, boys outnumber girls in the top 1 percent by a factor of 2 to 1. The ranks of females continue to thin, the book points up, the farther they go up the professional ladder. Anywhere from 64 percent to 93 percent of the professors on the tenure track in math-intensive fields, these authors say, are men and the number of women who intend to have a research career in those fields declines by 30 percent over the course of their doctoral training.
To figure out why, Ceci and Williams spent three years reading and synthesizing more than 400 studies on gender differences from seven different fields of study. They explored whether the lopsided distribution of math and science talent was due to innate or biological differences in skills such as spatial ability. They considered whether social and cultural biases erected barriers that kept women from reaching the top in those fields and debated whether women were simply less interested in math-intensive careers. In the end, they conclude that all three explanations contribute to the gender asymmetry in these fields. But a particularly important reason may be the choices that women themselves make about the kinds of lives they want to lead.
Interested in hearing more? You’re in luck. Ceci and Williams are the featured guests today for a Web-chat that I’ll be moderating on gender differences at the top in mathematics and the mathematically oriented sciences. The chat is scheduled to take place from 3-4 p.m. Eastern time. Tune in and read what they have to say.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.