Back in 2005, then-Harvard University President Lawrence Summers infamously speculated that the gender inequalities in the sciences at his institution may be genetic. Put simply, Summers thought that women were not as talented as men in mathematics.Researchers have been assiduously looking for a math gene since he made those remarks, but have not yet reported success. Those efforts, no doubt, are taking place in parallel with the effort to find the gene that prevents men from asking for directions.
A review of the data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress and enrollment patterns at flagship institutions of higher education, such as Harvard, might be helpful while we wait for definitive results from genetic and phrenological studies. In fourth grade, 10 percent of White, non-Hispanic, males score at the Advanced level on the NAEP Mathematics assessment, as compared to seven percent of White, non-Hispanic, females.One percent each of Black male and female fourth graders score at the Advanced level.Two percent of Hispanic males and one percent of Hispanic females reach the Advanced level, while 19 percent of Asian males and 20 percent of Asian females reach the Advanced level in fourth grade math.
Two aspects of these results concerning students at the beginning of their schooling stand out: the gender differences are small and do not all point in the same direction; gender differences are dwarfed by differences in students from different race/ethnicities.Of course the race and ethnicity categories are themselves highly questionable.“Asians,” for example, include Chinese, Vietnamese, Indians, Afghans, Laos, Uighurs and others of diverse backgrounds and genetic heritage.Hispanics are similarly diverse, as are White, non-Hispanics, and Black students.
After four more years of schooling we find that 11 percent of male White, non-Hispanics, reach the Advanced level in eighth grade, as do nine percent of female White, non-Hispanic, students.Up one for males; up two for females.Black students are still at one percent and one percent. Hispanic male and female students are up one percent each to three percent for males and two percent for females and the percentage of male Asian students scoring at the Advanced level has gone up four percent to 23 percent, while female Asian students have gained just one percent, losing their advantage.Again, Asians are twice as likely to score at the Advanced level as White, non-Hispanic, students, while the percentages of Black and Hispanic students at the Advanced level remain very small indeed.
Turning to postsecondary education, we are astonished to find that Summers’ own Harvard University graduates more than twice as many men with math undergraduate degrees as women (24 to 10) and equal numbers of White, non-Hispanics, and Asians (ten each). Within those last two categories White, non-Hispanic, men out number White, non-Hispanic, women six to four, while Asian men outnumber Asian women eight to two.This is quite odd if math talent is genetic.How does it happen that while at grade 4 the percentage of Asian students at the Advanced level in Mathematics is twice that of White, non-Hispanic, students, but by the time they go through Harvard, the numbers are equal?And how has the gender disparity among Asians—Chinese, Vietnamese, Indians, Afghans, Laos and Uighurs—become so large? Perhaps the gene in question only “expresses” itself after admission to Harvard.
However, the situation is even more extreme at the University of California, Berkeley, than at Harvard. There 65 male students received degrees in Mathematics, as compared to 12 female students and 28 White, non-Hispanic, students did so as compared to 20 Asian students. This in a region and university with an unusually high concentration of Asian-Americans. Nationally, only a quarter of those receiving undergraduate degrees in Mathematics are women. Black students are the only group with equal gender shares.
Which brings us to how we don’t provide high-quality science and math education to black and Latino children, especially young black and Latino women. According to the U.S. Department of Education, in 2001 Harvard awarded 74 Bachelor’s degrees in Mathematics and statistics, and, for example, MIT, a few blocks down river, awarded 93. Only three of the Harvard graduates were Latina women, and none were Black women. No Black or Latina women received degrees in Mathematics from MIT in that year. The story is disappointingly similar for 2009, the latest year for which data is available. Out of a total of 173 Bachelors degrees in Mathematics awarded from these two institutions, only 4 went to Black or Latina women. Not much progress to be seen there.
At least since President Obama’s Second Inaugural Address, the wage gap between men and women in the workplace has again risen to prominence in our national discourse. Serious efforts to close that gap must address both the persistent concentration of women, and specifically Black and Latino women, in lower income occupations, and continuing gender inequities in wages across all occupations. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 60 percent of employed Black women are in the sales, office and service occupations, as are 65 percent of Hispanic women. In the prestigious management, professional and related occupation sectors Black and Latina women work for much lower wages than do White, non-Hispanic, men: $812 and $789 per week compared to $1,273 per week.
The high road to occupational and income equity runs through the STEM fields, especially math. Once a specialized and somewhat arcane field, math is now required for many, if not most, business and governmental management positions and it is essential for careers in the sciences. Black and Latino students nationally have less access to key opportunities that prepare them for school and ensure they continue to succeed once they’re there. All children should, but many don’t, have access to high quality early childhood education, highly prepared and effective teachers, college preparatory curriculum or equitable instructional materials. In many middle schools with predominant Black and Latino enrollment, there are no “gateway” courses to college preparatory math offered. On top of that, young Black and Latina women must often contend with gender and racial stereotyping that pushes them down a school-to-low-wage-work pipeline. What America needs is a continuous K-12 pipeline of opportunities and resources giving young women, especially young Black and Latino women, access to the STEM fields.