Nyblade: How to get more women in math
At Penn State, women are not well represented in math. Based on the math department’s website, only 16% of all the assistant, associate, and full professors and 14% of all post docs, grad students, and grad assistants are women. The ratio increases for teaching-specific positions: 36% of all lecturers and assistant and full teaching professors are women.
These statistics concern me because diversity in the sciences is essential for creating an equitable, sustainable world. Math is essential in all scientific areas. Therefore, diverse minds are essential in this field of study to pioneer new math and new ways of using math to solve real world problems.
Studies have shown men and women have equal math skills, yet this gender gap persists. So why are so few women in math? Many people believe this gender gap is the result of how women are raised, influenced by media, and treated by teachers. These societal influences build a stereotype that women are bad at math, and this stereotype alone is enough to affect confidence levels and test scores. This lower performance likely pushes women from math.
So how does Penn State get more women in math? While I do not have a fix-all solution, I have my experience and my insights to share. I am an undergraduate woman studying geoscience, but through sophomore year I considered majoring in math. My test scores indicated I could have been successful as a math major, but I chose a different path because of my perception of the mathematics community.
In general, I chose to join a community if I feel welcome and if my values align with the community’s values. Based on my experience in Penn State math classes, I felt welcome if I could keep up, manage stress, and perform well on tests. These classes expressed the values of rapid comprehension, critical thinking, quick problem solving, perfection, and individual competition. At the end of two years, I felt superficially welcome because I did well in class, but had chronic self-doubt about my abilities. I felt continually obligated to prove to myself and others that I belonged in the math classes, rather than feeling wholly welcome from the start. Furthermore, my values did not align: the math classes did not reflect my values of genuine collaboration, relationships with people, and helping others. So, I assumed math wasn’t for me and majored in geoscience.
However, I returned to the mathematics community thanks to one applied math professor. I began working for him the summer after my sophomore year to build a hydrologic model in collaboration with a geoscience professor. Despite my lack of numerical modeling knowledge and coding skills, he welcomed me into his community. Never in my life had I ever felt welcome in the mathematics community for demonstrating anything less than perfection. My worth as a student was not contingent upon my performance on exams, but instead on my work ethic, my creativity, my questions, my ideas, and — yes — even my humor. I felt okay to admit I didn’t know something and ask questions because I did not feel continually judged and compared to others. My self-doubt evaporated and my confidence and creativity grew.
He also showed me that parts of the mathematics community share my values. For two year now, he has worked with me on using numerical modeling in my senior thesis project to evaluate sustainable groundwater management practices. Up until this point, I knew math was generally useful but I had never considered its ability to help people, specifically its ability to help create a more sustainable and equitable world. He also introduced me to a community of applied mathematicians around the world who value collaboration and relationships and who treat me not as an academic junior but as a valued and respected individual.
Based on my experience, I believe women will enter math when they are welcomed despite their insecurities and inabilities rather than weeded out and intimidated by rigorous individual competition. Stereotype threat causes women enough self-doubt to lower test scores, often making us feel inferior and unwelcome in the mathematics community of most undergraduate math classes. And even if we do achieve high marks, we are still plagued with anxiety about our ability because the message of our inability is so pervasive. I recognize the need to demand academic rigor and hard work from math students, but this must be within a welcoming environment or else women will generally continue to shy away from math.
Furthermore, more women will enter math if they see how their individual values align with the values of the mathematics community. Math should be taught in a way that communicates values beyond just individual competition and perfection, especially in early math classes. Students must also learn how math can be used to fulfill their life goals and not for just book problems.
True diversity is not just diversity in superficial characteristics, but diversity in ways of thinking, perspectives, and experiences. Therefore, diversity means including people with different values who feel welcome in different environments. We need people in math with diverse values, so math will be explored in innovative ways to further human knowledge and to help solve world problems. We need people in math from communities that feel unwelcome, so they too can have access to the power of math by applying it to questions important in their worldview.
I believe change will come by learning from student stories how to create a more welcoming community of diverse values. Small actions matter. One person can make all the difference.