Lost in America: Top math talent

October 10, 2008

October 1, 2008, Providence, RI---Do females intrinsically have less ability than males to excel in mathematics at the very highest level? Conventional wisdom seems to say yes. Harvard University president Lawrence Summers also seemed to give credence to this notion in 2005 when he suggested that it might account in part for the very small number of women professors in elite university math departments.

But a new study proclaims a resounding "no", providing a fact-based case to back up this conclusion. The study, "Cross-Cultural Analysis of Students with Exceptional Talent in Mathematical Problem Solving," appearing in the November 2008 issue of the Notices of the American Mathematical Society, brings together decades of data from several extremely high-level mathematics competitions for young people. These data show that there exist many females with profound intrinsic ability in mathematics. What is more, whether this ability is identified and nurtured is highly dependent on socio-cultural, educational, or other environmental factors. In the United States, these factors keep many boys as well as most girls from developing their mathematical talents to the fullest.

Girl Math Whizzes Found in Cultures that Value Math

The main part of the study examines participation in the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO), a highly challenging, nine-hour, six-problem essay style examination taken by some of the most mathematically gifted pre-college students the world over. In recent years as many as 95 countries have sent 6-member teams to compete in the IMO. The study found that there have been numerous girls who have excelled in the IMO; however, the frequency with which girls of medal-winning ability are identified varies greatly from country to country.

Even some relatively small countries, such as Bulgaria and Romania, can field highly successful IMO teams. "[W]hat most of these countries [that excel in the IMO] have in common are rigorous national mathematics curricula along with cultures and educational systems that value, encourage, and support students who excel in mathematics," the study says. Since 1974, the highly-ranked Bulgarian, East German/German, and USSR/Russian IMO teams have included 9, 10, and 13 different girls, respectively. By contrast, during that same time period, the US teams included just 3 girls. While only a few students per year typically achieve a perfect score of 42 points in this extremely difficult exam, multiple girls have been among them, including Evgenia Malinnikova of the USSR who missed by only one point achieving a perfect 42 three years in a row.

One of the study's findings is that many of the students from the United States who participate in the IMO are immigrants or children of immigrants from countries where education in mathematics is valued and mathematical talent is nurtured. A similar pattern holds for data from other highly challenging math competitions, including the USA Mathematical Olympiad and the Putnam Mathematical Competition for undergraduate students, also analyzed in the study. In particular, Asian-American and white girls who are immigrants from Eastern Europe are well represented in proportion to their percentages of the US and Canadian populations among the very top students identified in these math competitions. It is only US- and Canadian-born white and historically underrepresented minority girls who are underrepresented---underrepresented by 50-fold or more relative to Asian girls educated in the same school systems, the study concludes.

The study found that, when raised under some conditions, girls constitute 11% to 24% of the children identified as having profound mathematical ability. Raised under other conditions, girls were 30-fold or more underrepresented. The 8:1 to 3:1 ratio of boys to girls is likely an underestimate. In a truly gender-neutral society, the real ratio could well be close to 1:1; however, we currently lack ways to measure it, the study suggests.

US Culture Discourages Girls---and Boys

Study co-author Titu Andreescu of the University of Texas at Dallas believes, "Innate math aptitude is probably fairly evenly distributed throughout the world, regardless of race or gender. The huge differences observed in achievement levels are most likely due to socio-cultural attributes specific to each country." Some countries routinely identify and nurture both boys and girls with profound mathematical ability to become world-class mathematical problem solvers, while others, including the USA, only rarely identify girls of this caliber. In addition, social pressures conspire to discourage girls from pursuing math. "[I]t is deemed uncool within the social context of USA middle and high schools to do mathematics for fun; doing so can lead to social ostracism," the report says. "Consequently, gifted girls, even more so than boys, usually camouflage their mathematical talent to fit in well with their peers."

The study also looks at the representation of women among the faculty in five of the very top US research university mathematics departments. Just 20% of the women in these elite departments were born in the United States. Of the 80% born elsewhere, many are immigrants from countries in which girls are frequently members of IMO teams. The study found a similar race/ethnicity/birth country/gender profile among US participants in the IMO and its training camp as among the faculties of these outstanding math departments. "Thus, we conclude that the mathematics faculty being hired by these very highest-ranked research universities reflects the pool of IMO medal-caliber students of mathematics coming through the pipeline," the study says.

"The U.S. culture that is discouraging girls is also discouraging boys," says Janet Mertz, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of oncology and lead author of the study. "The situation is becoming urgent. The data show that a majority of the top young mathematicians in this country, male as well as female, were not born here." Co-author Joseph A. Gallian, professor of mathematics at the University of Minnesota Duluth, says, "Just as there is concern about the US relying on foreign countries for our oil and manufactured goods, we should also be concerned about relying on others to fill our needs for mathematicians, engineers, and scientists."

"[T]he myth that females cannot excel in mathematics must be put to rest," the report emphasizes. "Teachers, guidance counselors, parents, principals, university presidents, the lay public, and, most importantly, girls themselves need to be informed about the fact that females can excel in mathematics, even at the very highest level."
About the Authors

The study authors have extensive experience in running successful programs for youngsters with a very high level of mathematical talent. Titu Andreescu is a former coach of the Romanian IMO team, former leader of the USA IMO team, former director of the US Mathematical Olympiad Summer Program, former member of the Putnam Committee, and current director of AwesomeMath, a summer program for mathematically gifted children. Joseph Gallian is current president of the Mathematical Association of America and has worked with more than 30 IMO medal winners in a summer research program at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Jonathan M. Kane, a professor of mathematics and computer science at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, is currently a member of the Committee on American Mathematics Competitions and the American Invitational Mathematics Examination Committee. Together with Andreescu, he also directs the Purple Comet Math Meet, an internet-run international math competition for middle and high school students. Janet E. Mertz is a biochemist who researches viruses and hormone receptors involved in cancers. She is famous as the inventor of a simple way to make recombinant DNAs that could be cloned. Together with Kane, she parented a child who excelled in all of the competitions discussed in this study.

The article "Cross-Cultural Analysis of Students with Exceptional Talent in Mathematical Problem Solving" will appear in the November 2008 issue of the Notices of the American Mathematical Society. An advance copy, embargoed for 1am, Friday, October 10, 2008, is available at the non-public URL http://www.ams.org/staff/jackson/fea-gallian.pdf.

American Mathematical Society
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401-455-4000 Founded in 1888 to further mathematical research and scholarship, today the American Mathematical Society has more than 32,000 members. The Society fulfills its mission through programs and services that promote mathematical research and its uses, strengthen mathematical education, and foster awareness and appreciation of mathematics and its connections to other disciplines and to everyday life.

American Mathematical Society

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