I was happily reading the paper this morning celebrating my avoidance of work for the next week, when I came across an article discussing a recent study of gender and math performance. I can’t find the actual article I was reading online, but this one discusses the same study. In it, researchers looked at test scores and results from elite math competitions from 86 countries comparing both average and high-end performance of boys and girls. They discovered that in some countries there were no gaps whereas in other countries (including the United States) there was a gap but that it was narrowing over time. They also found that even as the gap between scores has narrowed that women remain underrepresented in elite university mathematics departments.
The conclusion of the researchers was that the gap in math performance was primarily cultural and social. They are quoted in the article I read as saying “If you take half the population and lecture to them about how girls aren’t good in math and how no one will expect you to do well in math because you’re a girl, you’re building in the cultural factor that makes girls not perform as well.”
As I read this article, the very first thing that occurred to me was how ridiculous it is that we are still having a conversation about whether or not women are innately worse at math than men. And don’t get me wrong: I appreciate the work that these researchers have done. But that the study had to be done, and that it was worthy of multiple articles in the press, is both ludicrous and sad at the same time. As someone who majored in math as an undergraduate and focused on theoretical computer science for the early part of my career, I find it completely obvious that women have the same potential to achieve in mathematics as men. I can only hope that over time studies like this will help attitudes to change. I would like to see the idea that girls are worse at math become a relic, something quaint and silly that the vast majority of people laugh about as they consider it.