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Girls and Mathematics: Sound Familiar?


A 2008 AMS report claimed that "a culture of neglect and, at some age levels, outright social ostracism, is derailing a generation of students, especially girls, deemed the very best in mathematics." The result is that American leadership in the mathematical sciences and related fields is put at risk.

The report suggests that girls with extremely high aptitude for math exist in the U.S., but they are not identified...and opt out for other non-mathematical careers "due to the low respect American culture places on math, systemic flaws in the U.S. public school education system, and a lack of role models." And, the report documents that the same is true for boys!

The source of data for the study was extremely difficult mathematics competitions aimed at the most elite student math performers, such as the Putnam Mathematics Exam (college level) and both International/state-side Mathematical Olympiads (high school level).

Some specific conclusions:

  • Contrary to the myth, many girls exist with a truly exceptional, intrinsic talent for mathematics.
  • Both girls and boys with exceptional math talents are identified and nurtured in countries where this ability is highly valued, while the U.S. routinely overlooks or ignores the same...discouraging many American youth from excelling in math.
  • American children of immigrants from countries where math talent is highly valued, notably Eastern Europeans and Asians, are much more likely to be identified as possessing extraordinary mathematical ability.
  • The U.S. pipeline for nurturing top math talent is badly broken beginning at the middle school level.
  • 80% of female and 60% of male faculty hired in recent years by the very top U.S. research university mathematics departments were born in other countries.
One author of the report suggested that while "In elementary school, girls do as well as or better in math than boys. In middle school, ...girls with an inclination for math begin to lose interest and fall behind, mostly due to peer pressure and societal expectations. Throughout middle and high school, social stigma and lack of appropriately challenging educational opportunities for the mathematically precocious becomes a hard reality in most American schools. Consequently, gifted girls, even more so than boys, often camouflage their mathematical talent to fit in well with their peers."

Source: ScienceDaily.com (October 10, 2008)