Male Superiority In Math: Fact or Fiction?
One true mystery of mathematics is the small number of female mathematicians. When most people think of mathematicians, they automatically assume that they are male. This leads to the idea that boys are mathematically superior to girls, which has long been a popular belief. Recent studies, however, may prove this to be wrong. The fact is that there are numerous female mathematicians who have made very important contributions to the mathematical world throughout history. Although they may not be as famous as some other comparable male mathematicians, their work is very important simply because they did significant work in a field that has always been assumed a man’s domain for some reason or another. Despite this, they still worked on mathematics because of the importance that they place on it.
One possible explanation of there being more male mathematicians than female is the place that a mathematician has in society. It is a very honorable career, but in the mind of a girl, it may seem undesirable, especially at a young age. Many girls think that being a mathematician is a man’s job. They also believe that if they study mathematics, guys may view them as being "braniacs," and give up studying math at a very young age, thereby limiting their futures and career choices.
A study was conducted by Gilah C. Leder whose primary objective was to
"examine whether the fear of success (FS) construct, which grew out of attempts to understand the conflicting sex-related findings in achievement motivation, was helpful in explaining observed sex differences in mathematics, achievement and course participation" (4).
The study was conducted with 258 boys and 233 girls in various grades. The results were that, as the boys and girls grew older, changes in the fear of success were greater in the girls than the boys. "High fear of success was found to be more characteristic of students considering a course less traditional for their sex" (4). This study shows that girls do not necessarily lack the ability to succeed in mathematics, but rather they fear how they will be thought of if they do pursue careers in mathematics. Since this fear keeps many women from becoming mathematicians, there is consequently a very small number of female mathematicians.
Another very interesting study on the mathematical ability of boys and girls was conducted by Betty Volpe, a sixth grade mathematics teacher. Every year she teaches what is called a Math Olympiad Team, a special mathematics class that lets boys and girls experience creative problem solving in a very non-threatening learning environment. The Olympiad was made up of students who scored in the top 10 percent of their grade on theCalifornia Achievement Test and only one-third of that 10 percent were girls. Volpe comments that
"In the once-a-week practice sessions, it became apparent that the needs and learning styles of boys and girls were quite different....