Explaining the Complicated Women + Math Formula

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Why aren’t there more women math professors? Or engineering professors, or physics professors, or professors of computer science or economics? Why aren’t there more women tech entrepreneurs? If a field involves lots of numbers, why does it seem to involve so few women? Some people say it’s discrimination, others say socialization and few, including a former Harvard university president, have said ability has something to do with it. (That’s largely why he’s “former.”) (More on Photos: A Brief History of Women in Power)

Now a husband and wife team, both academics (with three daughters), have analyzed the cognitive data and decided it’s not really any of these. It’s mostly about female preference and motherhood.

As far as ability goes, studies are pretty clear that on average women and men are about the same at math. But at the extremes, say Cornell University scientists Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams in the current issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, it’s a different story. More men than women suck at math and more males than females are math nerds. At Cornell, twice as many men as women studying math-related subjects scored in top 1% on math tests. Among 7th graders taking the SATs, six times as many boys as girls got into the top .01% of maths scores, the tiny sliver at the very pinnacle of freakish numerical ability. (More on The Myth of the Math Gender Gap)

These findings shouldn’t be that controversial. Most men are also better at lifting very heavy objects, singing baritone and setting their chest hair on fire. It’s just biology. But they make some people bristle because of the inference that women don’t rise to the top in math because they’re not as good.

Ceci and Williams put that theory to rest, because the gender imbalance — only about 9% to 16% of tenure-track positions in math-heavy fields are occupied by women — outweighs the ability imbalance, even at the far end of the scale. In other words, there’s a higher percentage of math-nerdy women than the percentage who are employed in math-nerdy positions. “When you look at the cognitive and biological data, they’re not enough to explain the difference,” says Ceci. (More on Who Says a Woman Can’t Be Einstein?)

Women graduate with baccalaureate degrees in math at the same rate as men, and since the mid ’90s more than a quarter of the math PhDs have gone to women. If they’re good enough to get that far, they’re pretty damn amazing at math. But at the next level — tenure-track associate professor — the proportion of females shrinks to single digits.

While Ceci initially thought biology was the reason behind the imbalance, Williams, who grew up in the first wave feminism of the ’70s, thought it must be because the men in charge of the hiring for university don’t choose women. But the data didn’t support her theory either. “Thirty or 40 years ago, this was the case. Now it’s no longer an important factor,” says Williams, who’s quick to add that this doesn’t mean discrimination doesn’t occur. “We found that if candidates of matched ability are applying for a position, women are slightly more likely to get the job,” says Ceci. (More on Will Better Education Get Women into the Corner Office?)

Many studies have found that adolescent girls express less interest in math-related careers than adolescent boys. Is this innate or from socialization? Ceci and Williams have an intriguing theory: “One overlooked factor is that among males and females of comparably outstanding mathematical aptitude, females are more likely to also have outstanding verbal ability,” they write. So guys choose math careers because they have fewer other options. “Females can consider math-oriented fields as well as law, social sciences, humanities, and medicine,” the authors write.

Historically, they say, women have preferred careers that center around living things, rather than inanimate ideas or objects. In 2009, about 27% of math PhDs were women, but more than three-quarters of veterinary graduates were women, for example. So it’s possible, suggest the authors, that women are just less likely to want a career in pure math or its engineering, tech-y cousins.

But there’s another more sinister force at work. Motherhood. Many women do not choose to pursue a tenure-track position right after their PhDs because they are procreating, so they don’t always feel confident they can do all the publishing and research that tenure requires. Similar dilemmas are faced by women tech entrepreneurs, which may be why very few tech startups are founded by a person with no Y chromosome. Mothers are more likely, when faced with a decision that could either damage their careers or their family, to protect the family. (More on The State of the American Woman)

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.

The authors also believe there’s a tacit understanding that when considering tenure-track job applicants, the candidates who have taken time off between finishing their doctorate and applying for  a job should be discounted. “They’re not thought of as serious enough,” says Williams. “If they have kids people think they won’t show up if their kid gets sick.”

Rebecca Goldin a tenured math professor at George Mason University, and a mother of four, is not sure about all the findings of the study. She feels girls are socialized away from math. But the last one resonates with her. “When having children and trying to be serious about mathematics, you can feel like your entire intellect is being judged,” she says, “and that if having children disrupts your publication or teaching efforts, you are a failure.” Among her friends, women have left mathematics because they felt marginalized, not because they didn’t like math.

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