July 17, 2003

Women in Mathematics

In the Chronicle of Higher Education Robin Wilson (login required) writes about programs boosting the number of women PhDs in mathematics. She explains the effort by:

Women in the field are particularly at risk: In 2002, 42 percent of the undergraduate mathematics majors in the country were women, but only 31 percent of those who earned Ph.D.'s in math that year were women, according to the American Mathematical Society. And only 13 percent, or 127, of those who earned doctorates were female U.S. citizens. In the professoriate, in 2000 only 17 percent of those tenured in math at four-year institutions were women.

Seems to me that 42% undergraduates and 31% of doctorates are very respectable numbers. Sure they can grow--given that there are enough women interested in PhD in math. The argument of only 13% US citizens is spurious. In her eagerness to show the female "disadvantage", the author strays to bigotry. What would satisfy her? Prohibiting legal residents to attend PhD programs? Numerus clausus for foreign students? 50% US female citizens plus 27% non-citizen women?

This seems like yet another attempt to find "disadvantage" where there is none. Should we now go and check the percentage of women in journalism or medicine? In teaching? Bookkeeping? Engineering? Clearly there were professions that in the past discouraged women (or men). However, there should be a limit to such bogus equity argument. Isn't it only natural that certain disciplines are more or less attractive to different sexes? 42% and 31% look pretty decent when viewed in this light.

The real problem is that our education system does not prepare enough US students to study math, science and engineering. That is why those programs, and the graduate ones in particular, have plenty of foreign students. Both male and female.

Posted by Ze'ev Wurman at July 17, 2003 03:39 AM


It never ceases to amaze me whenever people think women should be represented 50-50 in every profession, degree program, etc. Didn't it occur to anyone that women might just not be interested in getting a degree that would qualify them for only full-time employment? Lots of women want to work only part-time while they raise their kids. When you can teach part-time as an adjunct with a Master's degree, why bother wasting all those years on a doctorate?

I have to agree, though, about the lack of rigorous math prep in the U.S. I get complaints all the time about how many foreign grad students we have teaching classes. Students don't realize that our department has to recruit outside the U.S. because we just don't have enough "local talent" to fill all the teaching slots for all the remedial math classes (that the state refuses to fund, on the grounds that these classes are already being taught at the high schools).

Posted by Wacky Hermit In Training at August 12, 2003 11:01 AM