Gender gap in math is shrinking

July 30, 2009 7:01:18 PM PDT
New research is challenging some assumptions about women and mathematics. Women have traditionally been underrepresented in jobs involving higher math, but the studies suggest the gap has more to do with culture than ability.

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Seventeen-year-olds Iris Chu and Sally Wolf have been studying college-level mathematics since middle school.

"I think girls can do math, obviously. There are a lot of girls who are really good at math," says Chu.

But the question of why women have been historically underrepresented in the world of higher mathematics sparked controversy four years ago. That is when a former president of Harvard University suggested the reasons could be biological. But now two researchers at the University of Wisconsin have found evidence that the gender gap in top level math talent is narrowing.

"If it's closing over time, it's certainly not biological," says Janet Hine, Ph.D. of the University of Wisconsin. "If it's not found consistently in all nations, it's hard to believe it's biological."

Their report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences documented that math excellence in women correlated with other measures of rising gender equality and new opportunities in math-based professions.

"This is true where you see more girls being identified when the countries have greater equity," says Janet Mertz, Ph.D. of the University of Wisconsin.

They say improvement is being made even faster at earlier academic levels.

According to recent statistics, girls and boys in the U.S. are now virtually equal in math scores through high school.

Despite that progress, we still have a ways to go when it comes leveling the academic playing field. A recent report by the World Economic Forum ranked the U.S. 31st out of 128 countries in areas including education and economic opportunity.

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