Aug 15, 2014

    Women will be winning more science medals

    IT IS telling that the first female winner of the Fields Medal - the mathematics equivalent of a Nobel Prize - graduated from college in Iran, a country with one of the world's least women-friendly cultures and legal frameworks.

    It takes the toughest, or those most oblivious to their surroundings, to create a path that others can follow.

    Despite decades of progress, women are still woefully under-represented in the "Stem" fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

    In 2011, the last year for which official data is available, women made up 48 per cent of the total United States workforce and just 26 per cent of all Stem workers.

    The female share of tech workers at Apple is just 20 per cent.

    That meagre share of tech jobs is the bottom of a funnel.

    An exhaustive 2008 US study of seven million students found no discernible gender gap in mathematics performance at the elementary- to high-school levels.

    A separate 2010 study found that even at the genius level, where previous studies had found a gender difference, the gap has been narrowing: The ratio of boys to girls with SAT mathematics scores above 700 stood at 3.8 to 1 between 2006 and 2010, down from 13.5 to 1 in the 1980s.

    These days, girls take high school courses in mathematics and science as often as boys, despite the fact that the "mathematics is for boys" stereotype remains prevalent among elementary school children, as one recent study found.

    At college level, women begin to get cut off and discouraged.

    Even though they perform just as well as men, women earn only a quarter of physics degrees and 27 per cent of mathematics doctorates in the United States.

    Some recent research indicates that they quit because they get lower grades than they are accustomed to.

    Other studies have pointed to the same old gender stereotypes and discouragement by teachers, who praise their male students more, and give them more attention.

    There is also the not-always-attractive competitive nature of the tech-related fields.

    The funnel, however, might be widening.

    Late last year, the US National Center for Education Statistics released a report on "Stem attrition", showing that 48 per cent of bachelor's degree students who entered Stem fields between 2003 and 2009 changed their majors or dropped out by the spring of 2009.

    The surprising finding was that the attrition rate was higher among men - 49.2 per cent compared to 46.6 per cent for women.

    Stereotypes die hard, and male cultures in places like the Silicon Valley may be no more receptive towards women than those of Iran, but the tide is clearly turning.

    "The social barriers for girls who are interested in mathematical sciences might not be lower now than they were when I grew up," Maryam Mirzakhani, the Stanford University professor who has just won the Fields Medal, wrote last year.

    "However, there has been a lot of progress over the years, and I am sure this trend will continue."

    Women, in other words, will be winning more medals.