Outside the U.S., Math Isn't Just for Boys

Recently a colleague of mine at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation forwarded the following article to my attention: 'Math is for Boys' Stereotype Still Alive, by Valerie Strauss. The synopsis of Ms. Strauss's article is that by second grade girls and boys express the stereotype that ''math is for boys,'' but not for girls.

The author cites the conclusions of the University of Washington study, entitled, ''Math-Gender Stereotypes in Elementary School Children." She also refers to a 2010 study by the Association of American University Women that shows while women make up more than half the American workforce they still hold significantly fewer jobs in math and science fields.

Ms. Strauss poses the following question: Why don't young women enter math and science careers with the same consistency as males when, on average, they do as well, or better, than young men in class and on tests?

She concludes the answer revolves around stereotype: U.S. girls' lack of interest in mathematics may come from culturally communicated messages about math being more appropriate for boys than for girls. The author states that decades of research have shown that the stereotype exists in the United States, but not in other countries.

I've lived abroad several times -- studying, working and traveling for business and pleasure in Europe, the UK, Asia and the Caribbean. Most recently I spent a year traveling around the U.K. and various western European countries lecturing, consulting and doing research for a book.

I realized how I have been often treated with much more respect and dignity as a mathematician when traveling abroad than when I am at home in the states. So I really was not too surprised by Ms. Strauss's article. Yep, it seems that math is still for boys -- but only in the good old U.S.A. This is really sad and a waste of God-given talent that this is the case, especially in these hard economic times!

One of the countries I would love to spend more time in is Germany. I am really impressed with the leader of this country, Dr. Angela Merkel, who has a doctorate in physical chemistry. When I talk to my German friends about politics they never seem to get tripped up on the fact that Dr. Merkel:
• is a woman.
• just so happens to have a doctorate in a hard science.
• majored in a field that requires mastery of very strong math skills.
• seems to have more balls than most world leaders.

Because of the work I do in math and financial literacy at Phat Math, Inc and the IMackGroup, I posted Ms. Strauss's article on my blogs and forwarded it to a few friends and colleagues. Here are a few of the reactions to this article:

• It's really a travesty that this occurs so early. They actually learn this crap earlier, in Pre-K.
• It saddens me to no end. I noticed they said math isn't a boys' thing in the Czech Republic... Shows this is a states' thing, not universal.
• Man, the U.S. is so backwards. Heck, there are even women heads of state in African countries.
• Women do well in math in many European and Asian countries. Maybe Tiger Mom is right after all!

These comments got me to thinking about Dr. Merkel and how much more progressive Germans are than Americans. So I emailed this comment in response to the reactions above:

I travel all over the world lecturing and consulting and never have a problem outside the U.S. I have recently been invited to give workshops in London and Singapore. I collaborate with top experts from India, Oxford University, Cambridge University, etc -- all men! These folks never seem to focus on the fact I'm a woman or African-American. It seems that the U.S. likes to label everyone and everything.

While completing my doctorate in Applied Mathematics at Harvard I was fortunate to work with many smart people who encouraged me along the way -- my doctoral thesis advisors, professors at Harvard and MIT, researchers at AT&T Bell Labs where I did some of my doctoral research and also received a graduate research fellowship from, IBM and NASA scientists, etc.

Because of the help and encouragement I received from these brilliant and decent people, I decided early on that I would do my best to give back and help girls and boys learn that math is a "gatekeeper" field and is required to be successful in many professions.

More recently I have been using my work at Phat Math, Inc and the IMackGroup to encourage many of my former classmates from college and graduate school to help me show kids that math is cool and important in their everyday lives. I am happy to report that most of these former classmates are men who have been very happy to help me promote math literacy.

Yes, as Ms. Strauss' article illustrates, the U.S. may still have a long way to go in breaking down stereotypes. But my fellow male classmates give me hope that things may be better for future generations of girls and boys wishing to enter math and science fields.