Math Quiz: Why Do Men Predominate?

MathPrachi Patel in IEEE Spectrum:

No woman has yet won one of the three top mathematics awards–the Fields, the Abel, or the Wolf. It’s part of what’s often called the math gender gap, which in the United States starts early—at least twice as many boys as girls score in the 99th percentile on state-level math assessment tests.

Five years ago, then Harvard president Lawrence Summers’s suggestion that women lack an ”intrinsic aptitude” for math and science drew a firestorm of protest, but he was drawing on a century-old hypothesis that males exhibit greater variability in many features, math included. By such reasoning, it is possible for girls to be as good as boys in math on average but to be less well represented in the upper (and lower) echelons.

This, Summers said, is one reason there are fewer women in tenured science and engineering positions at top universities and research institutions. ”I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong,” he added.

A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences might make him happy. In it, psychologists Janet Hyde and Janet Mertz, from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, used data from math aptitude tests to show that among top math performers, the gender gap doesn’t exist in some ethnic groups and in some countries. The researchers conclude that culture is the main reason more men excel at the highest math levels in most countries.