Friday, October 10, 2008

"A Nerdy Boy in Mathematics"

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.


Anonymous said...

Just wanted to say that my sister is an exception to this concept that math is a subject dominated by men. She did fanatastic in math her whole school career, competed in math league, went on to do math in college, and is now an actuary. I on the other hand struggled with math in school and I think that the attitude overall when I was in school (7 years before my sister) was that math was more of a boys subject. Perhaps I felt it more though since I had difficulties with it.

LaRita said...

My daughter (age 12) came home from school a few days ago and told me that her 'boyfriend' had told her that boys were better at math than girls. He then proceeded to flaunt that he had gotten 99% on the math test the day before. She proudly announced to him that she had gotten 100%.

But I think she still sort of believed the "boys are better" 'fact'. As I majored in math, I feel justified in reminding her that not ALL boys are better, and that it's perfectly fine for her to be one of the girls that are better at math.

Anonymous said...

My DD, 8 year old, 1 grade accelerated, is now in 4th grade. During weekly math quiz, per her teacher,she gives boys a "run" for their life. This is a montessori setting where 4-6th graders have same home room. The point I'd like to make here, is that this child hails from an asian immigrant family. Education as a whole as well as early childhood education is the most important in our lives. At dinner table, she challenges her dad with quirky math problems.

Untill we raise, not just the bar, but also the floor, we will not do any service to our children. Untill we don't take prejudices out of our day to day behaviour, girls will continue to lag behind.