Women Can’t Do the Math?

April 04, 2011

Each month this year, AAUW teams up with Nature Publishing Group, one of the world’s leading science publishers, in an online forum on women in science. The AAUW posts highlight findings from our 2010 research report, Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, now in its third printing.

Some people suggest that women are underrepresented in certain science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields because boys outnumber girls at the very high end of the math test score distribution. In other words, girls’ and women’s math skills hold them back from pursuing STEM careers.

This argument is not convincing to me for two reasons. First, girls have made large inroads into the ranks of children identified as “mathematically gifted” in the past 30 years, while women’s representation in mathematically demanding fields such as physics, computer science, and engineering has not kept pace.

And the second reason — even more compelling than the first, in my opinion — is that the science and engineering workforce is not populated primarily by the highest-scoring math students, male or female. Researcher Catherine Weinberger found that fewer than one-third of college-educated white men in the engineering, math, computer science, and physical science workforce scored higher than 650 on the math section of the SAT, and more than one-third scored below 550 — the math score of the average humanities major.

So even though a correlation exists between high school math test scores and later entry into STEM education and careers, very high math scores are not necessarily a prerequisite for success in STEM fields.

What do you think?

By:   |   April 04, 2011


  1. cheryl fillekes says:

    Weird. I got a 680, and thought it was low. It was, compared to my verbal of 740. You mean to tell me that all along those guys I worked with I thought were idiots…actually were? Who woulda thunk.

    Interestingly, after 4 years of engineering school, my math-vs-verbal scores flipped — my math score was higher than my verbal. So much for our uteri determining our cognitive abilities. What hogwash. It’s nothing more than exposure.

    And that “spatial relations” nonsense never had much truck with me either — in their attempt to tell me I “couldn’t” take mechanical drawing in HS, they had me take a spatial relations test. I scored in the 99.99th percentile. I was the first girl to take mechanical drawing in Huntington High School — and the first to take ANY course in Industrial Arts.

    The reason women haven’t been going into engineering and the physical sciences is because it’s a highly-paid frat house, pure and simple. Discrimination. D-I-S-C-R-I-M-I-N-A-T-I-O-N. Discrimination.

  2. Whitney says:

    I was a mathematically gifted child and ready for Algebra in the 6th grade. My school would not let me take Algebra due to a scheduling conflict, I was required instead to take Home Economics. Why? It was a state mandate that children take home economics. Algebra was a privilege. I frequently wondered if I had been a boy, would they have chosen to enforce requirements for home economics over encouragement of a gifted mind for mathematics.

    When I was allowed to take Algebra in the 8th grade, there were three other girls in the class of 14. By the time we reached AP calculus the 4 girls were still in the class, but only two boys remained. We are now an actuary, an engineer, a high school math teacher, and a business woman.

    Perhaps more than test scores and biology, we chose careers in which we were genuinely interested and in which we felt like we could make a good living, and we could do this because we (eventually) were supported by our teachers, parents, and peers.

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