Although it is widely accepted that there are disproportionately few women in mathematics, the numbers for math majors do not seem to be as stark as I first thought. David Bressoud’s MAA article from 2009 uses data which is a few years old now, but gives a thoughtful and comprehensive review. In it, he cites the US Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics which says that in 2007, women were 44% of math majors, which is higher than I would have guessed. Still, those numbers do decline quite sharply as the education level and prestige increase. According to the AMS’ 2014 preliminary report of new doctoral recipients, only 30% of the recipients are women, and according to the AMS’ 2013 departmental profile report, only roughly 12% of tenured faculty members in mathematics departments which grant doctorates are women.

There are of course many factors that influence the number of women in mathematics, and rather than try (and fail) to identify them all here, I will examine one issue at a time.

I would like to discuss an empirical difference in the way men and women students behave in the classroom, which was first brought to my attention in a bio page I read of the mathematician Katrin Wehrheim. Dr. Wehrheim is now at Berkeley, but she used to be at MIT and their Women in Mathematics page still contains her bio.

In particular, I found the following passage insightful:

*“…In Katrin’s experience, women bring a different culture of thinking into mathematics that helps deal with these issues.*

It’s not that all men and women have distinct ways of doing math, but she notices that many women tend to focus on what they do not understand, while their male colleagues often rush to push together pieces they do understand and just take certain things for granted along the way. She sees it all in the time in the classroom. Women may be left behind while concentrating on a source of confusion unless they have the confidence to ask the question. If they do, the resulting discussion often clarifies a deeper issue for the entire class. So, Katrin believes that a higher representation of women, and people of diverse backgrounds in general, could produce an educational climate in which communication and clarity are valued higher.”

Two points here struck me. First of all, Dr. Wehrheim made an explicit argument for the benefits of diversity in the classroom. Rather than just saying “diversity is important” or even “different perspectives in the classroom deepens the conversation” (which is true), Dr. Wehrheim is precise. In general, the women in the classroom seem to focus more on what they do not understand than on what they do understand. These nuances can sometimes be overlooked by the men, so when the women do feel comfortable to ask questions, it leads to the whole classroom having a more sophisticated discussion.

The second point that struck me was that I have seen the dynamic Dr. Wehrheim describes played out in the classroom. This may be expressed to positive effect – the women students are aware of and comfortable to voice a potential concern – or to negative effect, where the women students constantly struggle with self-doubt. Unfortunately, I see the latter quite often. Even with upper-level classes, I see women students disengage when confronted with intentionally challenging problems. They may say, “Oh, I didn’t understand xyz in class. I’ll need to review my notes/the textbook before I can do this problem.” This is of course problematic. After clearing up one or two quick items, they typically would be ready to tackle the questions, which is the whole point.

Dr. Wehrheim’s comments have stuck with me over time. Do I do this? (Without question.) What is the psychological effect of always seeing what you do not understand rather than what you do? Could that have been why more of my female undergraduate peers chose not to continue with graduate-level math?

The concept of women struggling more with self-doubt than men is not novel. However, Dr. Wehrheim’s description of what this may look like in the math classroom made me more conscious of it as an educator. What to do with this information is still not clear to me, and that will have to be a topic for a future blog post.