The New York Times today has a fascinating write-up of a study of female participants in the International Math Olympiad and other high-level contests. The article, "Math skills suffer in U.S., study finds" makes the point that almost all the U.S. female participants in these contests are either immigrants themselves or children of immigrants from countries where mathematics ability is more broadly prized.
As one top young mathematician noted, in U.S. schools, there is an image of being "a nerdy boy in mathematics." This is, for the most part, an undesirable image. No one wants to be a nerd, and no one wants to date a nerd. And so, given that math ability is undesirable, only those who care very little about the social order of things are willing to showcase their abilities in the field. The fact that US young women are achieving less in these fields is less about innate ability, and more about a lack of cultivation of young talent. After all, other countries have managed to find far greater numbers of promising young female mathematicians to send to international contests. Not as many young women as young men, certainly, but not in the lopsided proportions you see in the U.S.
I find this fascinating because, as we've written about here before on Gifted Exchange, young men tend to outscore young women at top levels on math tests here in the U.S. But this difference is less pronounced (or absent) among Asian American young people. It suggests that there is some cultural element to the difference. We are all assumed to be relatively familiar with baseball. We aren't all assumed to be relatively familiar with math. Maybe if we were, it would be seen as less of a subject for "nerdy" boys.