Saturday, September 1, 2012

Measuring Women’s Progress in Mathematics

Linda Becerra and Ron BarnesUniversity of HoustonDowntown

Many believe that residual effects of past hindrances and discrimination against women in mathematics are being overcome. Studies by the American Mathematical Society and National Science Foundation on women in mathematics appear to reinforce this belief. Conventional wisdom suggests it is only a matter of time before women achieve parity. Julia Robinson (instrumental in the solution of Hilbert’s tenth problem) suggested that one measure of parity would be when male mathematicians no longer consider female mathematicians to be unusual.

Unfortunately, a close reading of AMS and NSF data suggests that significant progress is not being made. One can be deceived by looking only at raw numbers without considering the related percentages.

Among entering students at U.S. institutions, data for the years 2000 to 2008 indicate the number of female and male freshmen expressing interest in a major in mathematics went from 44,500 and 49,500 in 2000, to 66,000 and 66,600 in 2008. These figures indicate the gap between female and male interest in majoring in math narrowed from 5,000 in the year 2000 to 600 in 2008. However, among all undergraduates, the percentage of females and males interested in a math major went from 0.6 percent (female) and 0.8 percent (male) in 2000, to 0.7 percent and 1 percent, respectively, in 2008. Hence, the percentage gap between the sexes increased during this time. This is because there was considerably higher growth in the overall female undergraduate population during this period.

Total graduate enrollment in the mathematical sciences increased from about 9,600 in 2000 to 22,200 in 2009 (131 percent), while female graduate enrollment increased from 3,670 to 7,979 (117 percent). However, the percentage of female graduate enrollment in the mathematical sciences remained relatively static in the decade—38 percent in 2000 and 36 percent in 2009.

AMS mathematics data noted that the number of Ph.D.s awarded to U.S. citizens in the mathematical sciences increased from 494 in 2000 to 669 in 2008, and the number of Ph.D.s awarded to women grew from 148 to 200. However, the percentage of Ph.D.s earned by women in 2000 and 2008 were both approximately 30 percent, with some variation in the intervening years. Also, the percentage of bachelor’s degrees awarded to females during this time varied little from 41 percent.

The NSF used a different data set, and the conclusions are even less encouraging. It indicates that women’s percentage of bachelor’s degrees in mathematics from 2002 to 2009 steadily decreased from 48 percent to 43 percent.

In mathematics, the number of doctoral full-time tenure/tenure-track (T/TT) positions held by women at U.S. institutions increased from about 2,850 in 2001 to 4,000 in 2009 (a 40 percent increase). However, the percentage of T/TT positions held by females increased only from 18 percent to 23 percent during this time. This smaller difference is explained by the fact that significantly more males also obtained T/TT positions in this period.

There are reasons to believe that women’s progress in mathematics should be much better by now. Since 1982, considering all fields, women have annually earned more bachelor’s degrees than men. By 2011, more women than men had earned advanced degrees. Yet, the statistics cited show that in mathematics, women’s participation at advanced levels is still unusually low and either improving slowly or, in some cases, making no progress whatsoever.

The real question is: How can meaningful progress be effected? Evidently the present strategies are not working.

A few ideas for consideration:

• Engage in a rigorous, sustained intervention with girls throughout school-level mathematics and in universities—not a few small programs, but a broad, concentrated, and sustained effort to integrate girls into mathematics, its culture, and its relevance. This effort must involve all the professional mathematical societies.

• Reengineer the culture in the mathematics professoriate with an eye toward more flexibility in the tenure and promotion process. The standards need not be watered down in any way, but the process should allow for a variety of pathways to meet them.

As Julia Robinson observed, “If we don’t change anything, then nothing will change.”

Linda Becerra and Ron Barnes are professors of mathematics at the University of HoustonDowntown.