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The Low Representation of Women in Math and Science

sekang's picture

The Low Representation of Women in Math and Science

            As a math major, I have almost always been in male-dominated math classes since the beginning of my high school years. Eventually, I have accepted the unbalanced ratio between males and females in my math classes as a norm because I did not find it problematic. However, the disparity between the number of male and female students in math and science classes poses social and economic concerns, such as the difference between the average income, social status and possible careers of men and women. To challenge the social norm that I have been drawing upon my own experiences and feminist observations I have made from them, I have chosen to research on the low representation of women in Science Technology Engineering Mathematics (STEM) fields. According to research, facts show that men and women inherently and biologically have differently developed brains which filter women out of STEM field. Perhaps then, it is inevitable that women and men show their academic strengths in different fields.

            In order to learn about the causes of the low number of women in STEM fields, I relied on various academic and personal articles and resources. The book, They’re Not Dumb, They’re Different by Shulman Tobias, articulates that in general, there is a low percentage of undergraduates with science and math degrees in the U.S. colleges (Tobias 1990). According to Tobias, undergraduate students in math and science fields show their low interests in majoring in science subjects with several reasons. Tobias refers to a study done with post-undergraduates to understand reasons behind these statistics. For the study, post undergraduates, two men and five women all of whom majored in humanities with some math and science background, decided to audit either an introductory physics or an introductory chemistry class. All of them, except one student, did well, but only two out of seven students stated that they wanted to continue to pursue science in their education. When asked for reasons on why they wished to discontinue taking science classes, the undergraduates expressed negative emotions. For instance, several subjects noted that students were more interested in obtaining the correct answers than in asking the purpose of learning the materials in science classes. Also, since their exams are usually graded on curve, the subjects noted that there was no sense of community within the class. Hence, people preferred working separately, creating a competitive atmosphere. Additionally, students were not encouraged to think on their own. Students tend to copy what their professors write on the board and use the same method to obtain the correct answer. Tobias uses this study to suggest that the lack of community and independent thinking plays a big role in discouraging students from pursuing science further.

Additionally, an article, “His Brain, Her Brain” by Larry Cahill, states that human brains are sex-specific due to the different sex hormones of men and women. Studies that Cahill use in his article suggest that the small number of women in math and science subjects is due to the biological difference between brains of men and women, which was inspired by Dr. Lawrence Summers’ speech on women in STEM field on the same argument in 2005. Cahill further narrows the argument to the difference between the number of male and female students in science and math classes. Throughout the article, Cahill refers to two studies on the cause of different brains of men and women. By testing with fMRI, which measures brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow, scientists have discovered that the brains of men and women function differently on the cellular level in the past. For example, more neurons were detected in the regions responsible for language processing and comprehension in the brain of females, whereas in men’s brains, the neurons were not as active in those areas. The more active movement of neurons in women’s brains indicates their better performance on verbal fluency than men.

Besides using the fMRI technique, the two studies were conducted based on the behavioral psychology method. The first study that Cahill refers focuses on when the difference of the brain develops. Cahill hypothesizes that the possible cause is either the different sex hormones or the different childhood development shaped by the cultural influence. Since monkeys have similarly developed sex hormone to that of human but are not influenced by the human culture, a group of monkeys was used to test the two possible causes. The Monkeys were presented with “boy” toys, “girl” toys, and gender-neutral toys. Male monkeys tended to spend more time with the “boy” toys. Similarly, the female monkeys were more interested in playing with the “girl” toys. Hence, from this experiment, it was discovered that the difference in brain is due to the biological difference instead of the social pressure.

Furthermore, Cahill narrows down the causes of the difference of brains of women and men. The second reference tests the possible cause of the biological difference of the brain: nature or nurture.  In this case, a group of 1-year old boys and girls was shown an object and a person. In this experiment, 1-year old girls spent more time looking at the person, which characterizes a behavior of young girls, while the boys focused on looking at the object, which is a behavior of young boys. Thus from this experiment, it was discovered that it is nature and its innateness that governs the difference in brains of men and women. Furthermore, Cahill mentions the difference in tolerance in handling stressful events for women and men. Overall, Cahill confirms that the brains of men and women are different. Perhaps the difference in the brain may result in the different ways of learning between the sexes. Then it is possible that the optimal learning environments are different for each sex.

            The suggestions presented in “His Brain, Her Brain,” and They’re not Dumb, They’re Different help answer my question: why is there a low representation of women in STEM field? By Tobias, students who showed strong quantitative knowledge in high school lose their interest due to the dull atmosphere of science classes in college– it is the nature of science and math that discourages more of students’ engagement in class. In addition, by Cahill’s article, women’s brains are neither well-developed nor conditioned to learn science subjects. Then the combination of the two arguments essentially shows that the low representation of women in math and science field is an inevitable result. The number of students who are interested in STEM field is low to start with. Unfortunately, unlike men’s spatially-developed brains, women’s verbally-developed brain makes it more challenging for women to become interested in STEM field any further.

            If that is the real reason for the lack of women in STEM field, my next question would be to clarify the arguments presented here. Personally, as a math major, I agree Tobias’ argument, stating that quantitative classes lack creativity and arguably student’s engagement during class. However, I do not completely agree with the researches that Cahill presents in his article. Is human brain really sex-specific? If it is, why is it gendered? If not, what can we do to overcome the problem of small number of women in STEM field?


Anne Dalke's picture

Feminist Science Studies?

I'm very glad to see you beginning to dig into the reasons for the absymally low representation of women in STEM fields--and I like it that you end this survey with a few "next questions." I'm am hoping that you'll be interested in going on with this work.

If you do, I'd nudge you in (at least!) three directions: first, what do you know experientially about these issues? What have been your own experiences in this regard? Do you have your own story to tell, that either fits with some of the research you report on, or challenges it?

Second, I'd like you to be a little bit more skeptical about the "brain difference" research; the best recent work I know in this regard is Rebecca Jordan-Young's book, Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences. Harvard University Press, 2010; I'd recommend your starting with the Preface and Chapter 1: "Sexual Brains and Body Politics" and Chapter 10: "Trading Essence for Potential." ix-20, 269-292 (and then, of course, if you're interested, in reading the rest! You might also want to drop in to my lecture notes about "what I like about it" @ /exchange/courses/pppp/f11/notes/8Anne

Finally, of course--whatever the reasons for the low numbers of women in these fields--the real question is what to do about it. If you think that different pedagogical strategies might be of help here, you might look @
* Londa Schiebinger's "Physics and Math." Has Feminism Changed Science? Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. 159-179;
*Bonnie Jean Shulman's "What If We Change Our Axioms? A Feminist Inquiry Into the Foundations of Mathematics." Configurations. 1996. 3: 427-451; and
* "Frequently Asked Questions About Feminist Science Studies." Women and Scientific Literacy: Building Two-Way Streets. The Association of American Colleges and Universities. 1999. 1-19.

Anne Dalke's picture

STEM Posse!

Stopping back here to make sure that you heard today's breaking news: the announcement that Bryn Mawr will begin to host, next year, the very first women's STEM Posse.