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Math’s Inequality


Men still dominate Stanford’s math faculty. How much does it matter?

On a typical day in Stanford’s math corner, men sit pondering arcane expressions illustrated in Greek. But, although there are quite a few female graduate students in the Department of Mathematics, women are scarcer on the faculty–there are three female professors out of 46 mathematics faculty in total.

Why the gap? Stanford professors have a few ideas.

“Two generations ago, there was severe bias and women could not become mathematicians without fighting the system, but I don’t think that is the case now,” said math professor Joan Licata. “There may be isolated sexist attitudes, but my personal experience has been generally positive.”

SERENITY NGUYEN/The Stanford Daily

But old biases can leave “a legacy that takes a long time to change, as you notice that the senior faculty we see now are the product of an earlier age where the prevalent social distortions promoted men,” Licata added.

Sociology professor Shelley Correll said gender disparity issues have “certainly improved from a situation where there were no women to a situation where there are some women” in mathematics.

The changes haven’t been across the board. In computer science (CS), for example, the number of women in the field has decreased since the 1980s, according to Correll.

“College majors did become more integrated until the 1990s, where it has become a flat trajectory,” Correll said.

On the possible causes for gender disparities, Licata said that while it would be incorrect to rule out the effect biology has on men’s and women’s career choices, it is more practical to focus on the social aspects that contribute to the current picture.

Correll mentioned the typical differences in how boys and girls are conditioned to act.

“Girls are encouraged to care more about others, while boys are pushed to be more independent,” she said.

“Parents pass on more than genes by socializing expectations,” she added.

Amy Pang, a graduate student in math, recalled how in high school, her affinity for math caused others to call her “a robot.” But, she added, the characterization died out in college.

Correll indicated such stereotypes can be useful labels that give a rough idea of people’s personalities and interests, but become harmful if others judge their individual abilities based on those preconceptions.

Motherhood might have something to do with the lack of women in mathematics, although it is less likely than other potential explanations.

“The years when people want to have kids are also the years when people also try to get tenure that then is bound to cause some conflict in balancing the two,” Licata said.

But both Licata and Correll agreed that this specific issue is hardly restricted to math and extends to most disciplines.

Neither Licata nor Pang expects math departments to be evenly split between men and women. But statistics may be misleading, suggesting a problem when there may be none.

It is more important that “current students have equal options,” Licata said. “I care less about whether a department has ethnic or gender parity and more that math departments are generally welcoming, open and supportive places for everybody. So I’m more interested in the experiences of people today.”

“People should never be forced into anything,” Pang said. “Girls should be offered what boys are offered and vice versa, and then be allowed to choose for their own.”

To further this goal, Licata created an organization called Stanford Women in Math (SWiM). Its goal, which Pang strongly supports, is to connect the female minority in math by giving them “easier ways to get to know each other,” Pang said.

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