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December 09, 2003

Ms. Math

My friend "b" and later godless both expressed surprise that 29% of people who received Ph.D.'s in mathematics this year were female. This is peculiar in that in physics it is only 16.3% and 17.5% in engineering. My survey of the PUTNAM math competition earlier this year hardly yielded any women. What gives? Godless wondered if it was due to math education that this occurred. I am skeptical of this explanation because I believe most of those programs are masters, not doctoral. I decided to survey 3 elite university math departments to see what the pattern among their graduate students were. This is the sex ratio I got....

Harvard:
12 Women
26 Men
12 Unknown (this group is mostly East Asian, I can't tell gender)

MIT:
28 Women
57 Men
16 Unknown

University of Chicago:
27 Women
67 Men
9 Unknown

Excluding the "Unknowns" from the pool (who were probably mostly non-citizen Asians in any case), that gives 31% female graduate students at these universities.

I Instant Messaged "b" this afternoon, and I asked him the following two questions:

1) What was the percentage of girls in your high school calculus class?
2) What was the percentage of girls in your advanced physics class?

Though "b" asserted they were generally duller than the males, he offered that it was around 50% in calculus and 2 out of 7 in the physics class. The latter is a small sample, but my high school physics class was 3 out of about 25 students (these are non-"conceptual" classes I am speaking of). When I was in college I would ask around about this difference between the number of women in advanced mathematics and advanced physics courses, and most people had experienced it.

I suppose you could argue that there is a cultural/sociological explanation for this, sexism, patriarchy and so forth. If that is true, then the women in question are often deeply in denial, because I discussed this issue with mathematically gifted females rather in-depth, and these were not the answers they gave. Lack of interest, other academic priorities, etc. figured highly. My repeated question was this: if you can do calculus, what's stopping you from taking physics??? There wasn't one voice, and truth be told, I gave up trying to find out the reason. The most common response was, "Why should it follow that I take physics if I can do calculus?"

Perhaps it is a cultural bias. I don't know. But...from reading books like Number Sense and The Math Gene, it seems clear that various areas of mathematics, algebra, geometry, numeracy, etc. are dispersed in various parts of the brain. In other words, there is no one "math module". Add to this Greg Cochran's assertion that Jews have greater math but not visuo-spatial skills, and the peculiar representation of women in the mathematically oriented sciences might seem less strange. Perhaps math isn't so hard, but physics is. In other words, though the smaller variance in female general intelligence might be a strong factor in their numerical decline up the mathematical hill in the natural sciences, the bounce back up in pure mathematics after physics (going from biology->chemistry->physics->math) is because the visuo-spatial element, where males have a strong advantage, becomes less important.

Of course, this is rank speculation, and the connection of visuo-spatial abilities and mathematical ability is something that is asserted by many mathematicians when they explain how they do what they do. Camille Paglia could be right, guys have to pee standing up and calculate the trajectory of their urine stream, so they have an early head-start in mechanics....

Posted by razib at 07:14 PM