In 1874, the University of Berlin refused to grant a doctorate to the Russian mathematical genius Sofya Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya, who turned around and got one at the rival University of Göttingen; even so, she had to emigrate to Sweden to find a teaching job. Eight years later in the United States, Johns Hopkins University refused to grant Christine Ladd-Franklin a Ph.D., although she’d done her dissertation under the famous logician Charles Sanders Peirce. The school simply did not grant degrees to women.
Today men still dominate mathematics, but there is reason to believe that things are changing. One strand of evidence comes from a study at the University of Wisconsin, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which finds that the overall progress of women in society is a surprisingly good indicator of their performance at the highest math levels.
The World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index measures inequality between men and women with regard to salaries, politics, education, and health. The Wisconsin study looked at the 2007 index and noted that higher-ranking countries have had more girls on their International Mathematical Olympiad teams in the past two decades. The 2009 index shows a similar correlation.
Girls are starting to perform just as well as boys on standardized math tests [see ”Math Quiz: Why Do Men Predominate?” elsewhere in this issue]. The percentage of math Ph.D.s awarded to women has jumped to 30 percent since the 1960s. That’s more than can be said for engineering, which is still a male stronghold.
Click on any of the images below to see the data for yourself.
Times Tables: The strongest International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) countries tend to have the highest percentage of girls on their teams and also have the lowest overall gender gaps, as measured by the World Economic Forum’s 2007 Gender Gap Index (GGI).
Percentage of U.S. Ph.D.s awarded to women
Olympiad perfect scores Number of Olympiad contestants who earned perfect scores, by gender
To Probe Further
For more the math gender gap, see "Math Quiz: Why Do Men Predominate?"