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U.S. Culture Discourages Girls from Excelling at Math

Many girls possess a high aptitude for mathematics, a new study concludes, but few girls in the United States reach the highest levels of mathematical attainment. The nation urgently needs to improve how it identifies and nurtures such gifted children so that this pool of exceptional talent is not wasted, the study recommends.

These conclusions appear in the paper "Cross-Cultural Analysis of Students with Exceptional Talent in Mathematical Problem Solving," published in the November Notices of the American Mathematical Society.

The report points to the high levels of mathematical achievement by young people in the nations of Asia and Eastern Europe. Most other countries, including the U.S., do not nurture such talent among its youth, especially girls. "They are rarely identified due to socio-cultural, educational, or other environmental factors," the article argues. In the U.S., these factors remain impediments to the best and the brightest of women rising to the top.

To reach these conclusions, Janet E. Mertz of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health and her colleagues examined the history of mathematical competitions, especially the make-up of teams of high school students competing in the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO). The study revealed that many girls from around the world have excelled in the IMOs. Since 1974, the highly-ranked Bulgarian, East German/German, and USSR/Russian teams have included the most girls: 9, 10, and 13 girls, respectively. In contrast, U.S. teams have included only 3 girls.

Moreover, according to the study, U.S. team members, male or female, were often immigrants or children of immigrants from countries where learning mathematics is important. The same was true for participants in the USA Mathematical Olympiad (USAMO) and the Putnam Mathematical Competition for undergraduates.

In general, the countries that have had the most girls on their teams and done well over the years have "rigorous national mathematics curricula along with cultures and educational systems that value, encourage, and support students who excel in mathematics," the report notes.

The scarcity of women who excel at the highest level in mathematics is due, "in significant part, to changeable factors that vary with time, country, and ethnic group," the study suggests. One reason may be that it is "deemed uncool within the social context of USA middle and high schools to do mathematics for fun; doing so can lead to social ostracism," the report says. "Consequently, gifted girls, even more so than boys, usually camouflage their mathematical talent to fit in well with their peers."

"Innate math aptitude is probably fairly evenly distributed throughout the world, regardless of race or gender," study co-author Titu Andreescu of the University of Texas at Dallas and former director of the MAA American Mathematics Competitions said. "The huge differences observed in achievement levels are most likely due to socio-cultural attributes specific to each country."

The report ends with an admonition. The "myth that females cannot excel in mathematics must be put to rest," it says. "Teachers, guidance counselors, parents, principals, university presidents, the lay public, and, most importantly, girls themselves need to be informed about the fact that females can excel in mathematics, even at the very highest level."

The New York Times, Reuters, and other media picked up the report, but generally failed to mention the centrality of the entity behind the USAMO competitions—the MAA—or connections of the study authors to the MAA. Andreescu was former U.S. IMO team leader and past director of the MAA's Mathematical Olympiad Summer Program. MAA President Joseph A. Gallian of the University of Minnesota Duluth has worked with more than 30 IMO medal winners in a summer research program at his university. Jonathan M. Kane of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater is a member of the MAA Committee on the American Mathematics Competitions and the American Invitational Mathematics Examination Committee.

Source: Notices of the American Mathematical Society, November 2008; American Mathematical Society, Oct. 10, 2008; New York Times, Oct. 10, 2008.

News Date: 
Friday, October 10, 2008