U.S. Culture Blamed for Lack of Girl Math Experts

Study Blames Peer Pressure and Lack of Challenging Coursework as Obstacles

Oct. 10, 2008

A new study published in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society says there’s no shortage of American girls with an aptitude for math, but the crux of the study reveals a troubling trend.

The study, Cross-Cultural Analysis of Students with Exceptional Talent in Mathematical Problem Solving, identifies obstacles such as peer pressure and other societal issues that keep girls from pursuing education and careers in mathematics.

Study co-author Titu Andreescu, UT Dallas associate professor and director of AwesomeMath, said the problem is largely domestic.

“Innate math aptitude is probably fairly evenly distributed throughout the world, regardless of race or gender,” Andreescu said. “The huge differences observed in achievement levels are most likely due to socio-cultural attributes specific to each country.”

Janet Mertz, the study’s lead author and a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor, said in a recent release, “We are wasting this valuable resource. There are some truly phenomenal women mathematicians out there.”

The study, based on data from elite math competitions, reveals:

  • No national shortage of girls who are talented mathematicians.
  • Girls do excel at math, despite myths to the contrary.
  • American children feel discouraged from pursuing careers and education in math.
  • Emphasis on mathematics at home and school is much greater internationally than it is in America.
  • Children from Europe and Asia—where math is highly emphasized—are much more likely to be identified as extraordinary at math.
  • The career/education pipeline for nurturing top math talent in the U.S. breaks down by middle school.
  • 80 percent of female and 60 percent of male faculty hired in recent years by the very top U.S. research university mathematics departments were born in other countries.

Elementary school girls tend to do as well or better in math than their boy classmates, and the authors suggest that peer pressure and societal expectations cause girls to begin falling behind or losing interest in math by middle school. Worse, some girls may even hide their aptitude or interest in math to avoid ridicule.

The study says the U.S. is heavily reliant on hiring math experts from outside the country, and that talent pool may soon dry up as math experts stay home to take advantage of opportunities in their own countries. The lack of top-flight mathematicians and scientists could, as the report suggests, put the economy of the U.S. in further jeopardy.


Media Contacts: Brandon V. Webb, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, brandon.webb@utdallas.edu
or the Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, newscenter@utdallas.edu

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The study found no national shortage of girls who are talented mathematicians.

Study Authors

  • Janet E. Mertz, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • Joseph A. Gallian, University of Minnesota, Duluth
  • Jonathan M. Kane, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater
  • Titu Andreescu, The University of Texas at Dallas
 

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