06 March 2008

Why Jenny Flunks Math 55

Math 55 is supposed to be the hardest math course in US higher education. "Honors Calculus and Linear Algebra". Classes meet three hours a week, and class homework requires up to 60 hours a week. Few women take Math 55. Fewer still ever pass.
Math 55 does not look like America. Each year as many as 50 students sign up, but at least half drop out within a few weeks. As one former student told The Crimson newspaper in 2006, “We had 51 students the first day, 31 students the second day, 24 for the next four days, 23 for two more weeks, and then 21 for the rest of the first semester.” Said another student, “I guess you can say it’s an episode of ‘Survivor’ with people voting themselves off.” The final class roster, according to The Crimson: “45 percent Jewish, 18 percent Asian, 100 percent male.”

Why do women avoid classes like Math 55? Why, in fact, are there so few women in the high echelons of academic math and in the physi­cal sciences?

Women now earn 57 percent of bachelors degrees and 59 percent of masters degrees. According to the Survey of Earned Doctorates, 2006 was the fifth year in a row in which the majority of research Ph.D.’s awarded to U.S. citizens went to women. Women earn more Ph.D.’s than men in the humanities, social sciences, education, and life sciences. Women now serve as presidents of Harvard, MIT, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and other leading research universities. But elsewhere, the figures are different. Women comprise just 19 percent of tenure-track professors in math, 11 percent in physics, 10 percent in computer science, and 10 percent in electrical engineering. And the pipeline does not promise statistical parity any time soon: women are now earning 24 percent of the Ph.D.’s in the physical sciences—way up from the 4 percent of the 1960s, but still far behind the rate they are winning doctorates in other fields.

...So why are there so few women in the high echelons of academic math and in the physical sciences? In a recent survey of faculty atti­tudes on social issues, sociologists Neil Gross of Harvard and Solon Simmons of George Mason University asked 1,417 professors what accounts for the relative scarcity of female pro­fessors in math, science, and engineering. Just 1 percent of respondents attributed the scarcity to women’s lack of ability, 24 percent to sexist discrimination, and 74 percent to differences in what characteristically interests men and women.___American__via_SteveSailer
But the truth may be a bit less politically correct. La Griffe du Lion looks at sex differences in mathematics and concludes:
Mathematics is a man's game. A gender gap appears early in life, blossoms with the onset of puberty and reaches full bloom by mid-adolescence. It indelibly shapes women's prospects for doing significant mathematics. In this account of cognitive sex differences, Prodigy shows how sex-differentiated ability in 15 year-olds accounts for the exiguous female representation at the highest levels of mathematical research. A female Fields Medalist is predicted to surface once every 103 years.
Another look at women and minorities in science concludes:
Prospects for women and minority doctoral scientists in engineering and other math-intensive areas are examined. A calculation of the ethnic-gender profile of this segment of the workforce is made for U.S. citizens and permanent residents. Rank ordering on mathematical reasoning ability predicts that women will top off at approximately 27 percent of this market. Similarly, rank ordering predicts almost 99 percent of math-intensive doctoral jobs will go to whites and Asians of primarily Chinese, Japanese, Korean and South Asian descent. Asians will continue to be represented in these fields well beyond their numbers in the general population. A study of the math-intensive academic marketplace predicts that women will top off there at about 22 to 23 percent.
In fact, women are already topping off at roughly 24% in the physical sciences which are more math intensive. If you read the Christina Hoff Sommers article you will find that politically, this lack of gender equity is simply unacceptable. Regardless of how many other academic fields and professions that women may be coming to dominate, if even a few fields remain where male dominance appears unchallenged, political feminists will cry foul. And when that happens, billions of dollars suddenly change hands, department heads and college deans will fall, and congress suddenly shakes a leg to please.

This is simply power politics for high powered feminist heavyweights, such as those mentioned in the article. But for academia, it sounds more like the death knell of minimally politicized science and math. The further entrenching of ideology into every aspect of academic thought and training. Make the world conform to your insular views, at all costs. Regardless of who is finally elected US President in November, there is no doubt who is at the wheel. PC--a cold and killing dogma.

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Blogger Michael Anissimov said...

This is the same reason that Jews and East Asians do better on these subjects than Anglo-Saxons and other races -- cognitive differences. The differences are especially notable at the higher end of the scale. Genetic exchange between continents hasn't been especially thorough since humanity first spread out, roughly 100,000 years ago.

Friday, 07 March, 2008  
Blogger Bruce Hall said...

Right-brain vs. left-brain?

Friday, 07 March, 2008  
Blogger al fin said...

Thanks for the comments, all.

There are a lot of well-documented differences between male and female brains. These are statistical differences, so that individual comparisons are not precisely predictable.

In other words, there are many women who would clean my clock at math. But they are not competing against me for the top tenured math and physics positions at Harvard, MIT, Stanford, etc. They are competing against males who were more blessed (or sometimes cursed?) with mathematical intuition and firepower than myself.

As for the ethnic differences that Michael points out, it is true that evolution does not follow the same path everywhere, in isolated or semi-isolated breeding populations. Humans are still evolving.

We need the best that all humans can produce to make it past the very delicate impasse to which we are heading.

Friday, 07 March, 2008  
Blogger Snake Oil Baron said...

I have yet to be exposed to the evidence that would convince me that Asian are better at math due to genetic traits rather than due to factors like having been raised in a culture where the alphabets are ideographic instead of phonographic. I have heard of recent work showing that those who come from an Asian culture (rather than being of Asian ancestry in a Western culture) view images differently - with Westerners focusing on foreground detail at the expense of the whole image and Easterners focusing on the total image at the expense of the central image. I have yet to feel that a persuasive case has been made to differentiate cultural versus hereditary traits. But then, I don't really care enough about the issue to research it much. So I might not be up to date on the issue.

As for gender, the idea that gender imbalances are "unacceptable" is pure madness. My opinion on this has been evolving over time. Even if personal choice is more significant than ability it is still *personal choice*.

Discrimination should obviously be dealt with seriously (I recently heard that papers were significantly more likely to be published when the reviewers did not know that the author was female - if this is true it represents a real problem that should be addressed). But I am currently entering a field that has a significantly greater fraction of females to males (medical lab technology). Am I really supposed to believe that they (and female nurses and doctors and biologists) were all really wanting to become engineers and physicists and mathematicians but were kept out by sexism?

Frankly, I do see a case to be made that there is still some sexism at the education level (guidance counselors especially) but I think that some of the stereotyping is a result of overgeneralizing real observations about human nature. If all professors, faculty advisers, journal reviewers, PhD comities and high school guidance counselors could be replaced by artificial intelligences with no gender concepts at all you would still see fewer women in advanced math and related disciplines and fewer men in nursing. But those who were there would know they had earned it instead of being given political points.

Friday, 07 March, 2008  
Blogger al fin said...

Baron, it is important to distinguish between genetic causes, and biological causes. The cause of a difference may be biological without being genetic, at least directly. Take two otherwise identical developing brains: expose one developing brain to increased levels of androgens [within reason] compared to the other, over critical periods of development, then continually for the rest of its life.

The androgen supplemented brain is going to be better at spatial and mathematical intuition than the non-supplemented brain. Even though both began as identical.

I say "within reason" because it is possible to go too far with the androgens, and end up worse off than before.

Hormones have a powerful impact on the brain.

As far as ethnic differences go, when the differences persist among immigrant families who speak English and are culturally American, it is difficult to claim that the "alphabet" is the reason.

Smart people eventually come around to giving the genes their due. Sooner or later.

30 years ago there may have been good excuses to cling to the "culture is everything" banner. Not so much anymore.

Friday, 07 March, 2008  

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