The Association for Women in Mathematics represents a broad spectrum of the mathematics community, both women and men, from the United States and around the world. Our purpose is:
• to encourage women and girls to study and to have active careers in the mathematical sciences, and
• to promote equal opportunity and the equal treatment of women and girls in the mathematical sciences.
We are pleased that President Bush and Education Secretary Spellings recognize the importance of strengthening mathematics education, and have shown this by appointing a National Mathematics Advisory Panel. However, we have serious concerns about the panel as currently constituted. We would have preferred to see more mathematicians and more than 6 women on a panel of 17. But our greatest concern is that its vice-chair, Dr. Camilla Benbow, is best known for the hypothesis that there are inevitable gender differences in favor of males at the highest level of mathematical performance. This hypothesis has already done serious damage (citations are below); furthermore, there is substantive evidence against it (again, citations are below).
In 1980, Camilla Benbow and Julian Stanley published an article in Science reporting large gender differences in “mathematical reasoning ability.”[i] Their evidence was scores on the SAT taken by 7th graders as part of a talent search for a program at Johns Hopkins University. In their conclusion Benbow and Stanley explicitly favored (their word) “the hypothesis that sex differences in achievement in and attitude towards mathematics result from superior male mathematical ability . . . [which] is probably an expression of a combination of both endogenous and exogenous variables.”
The result of this article was, as Dr. Benbow and her colleagues noted twenty years later,[ii] a “media field day.” Headlines suggested that mathematical ability was determined at conception. Newsweek asked, “Do males have a math gene?” TIME reported that, “A new study says that males may be naturally abler [in mathematics] than females.” Science itself asked, “Are girls born with less [math] ability?” A 1986 study has documented the negative impact of this publicity on the expectations of both girls and their parents with respect to their achievement in mathematics.[iii]
Critiques of Benbow and Stanley's work became a small industry in psychology. We consider only one issue on which all sides agree. If, indeed there is an innate gender imbalance in mathematical ability, then it should be roughly constant over time. But the available evidence does not support this.[iv] The male to female ratio of Hopkins talent search participants with scores over 700 has declined. In 1983, Benbow and Stanley reported a ratio of 13 boys to 1 girl between 1980 and 1982.[v] Hopkins researchers reported that the average was 5.7 to 1 between 1984 and 1991.[vi] Six years later, in 1997, Julian Stanley reported this ratio as 4 to 1.[vii] In 2005, Hopkins researchers reported this ratio as 3 to 1.[viii]
This reflects trends in other measures. For example, about one third of the PhDs in mathematics now go to women.[ix]
Despite these changes, the 1983 13 to 1 ratio, together with Dr. Benbow's subsequent work, is still cited in the national media,[x],[xi],[xii] in works for general audiences,[xiii] and in academic writing.[xiv]
We hope that the National Mathematics Advisory Panel will debunk myths about mathematical ability and its relationship to gender, ethnicity, and race. We are concerned that Dr. Benbow is so closely identified with her 1983 statistics and hypothesis that her presence on the Panel signals – in perception or in reality – a bias against women and girls. The Panel is charged with fostering greater knowledge of and improved performance in mathematics among American students. It would be unfortunate if its impact were just the opposite.
[i] C. P. Benbow and J. Stanley, “Sex differences in mathematical ability: fact or artifact?,” Science, 210, no. 12 (1980): 1262-1264, http://www.vanderbilt.edu/Peabody/SMPY/ScienceFactOrArtifact.pdf
[ii] C. P. Benbow, D. Lubinski, D. Shea, and H. Eftekhari-Sanjani, “Sex Differences in Mathematical Ability at Age 13: Their Status 20 Years Later,” Psychological Scientist, 11, no. 6 (2000): 474-487, p. 474, http://www.vanderbilt.edu/Peabody/SMPY/SexDiffs.pdf
[iii] J. Eccles and J. Jacobs, “Social Forces Shape Math Attitudes and Performance,” Signs, 11, no. 2 (1986): 367-380.
[iv] E. Spelke, “Sex Differences in Intrinsic Aptitude for Mathematics and Science?: A Critical Review,” American Psychologist, 60, No. 9 (2005): 950–958, http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~lds/pdfs/spelke2005.pdf
[v] C. P. Benbow and J. Stanley, “Sex Differences in Mathematical Reasoning Ability: More Facts,” Science, 222 (1983): 1029–1031, http://www.vanderbilt.edu/Peabody/SMPY/ScienceMoreFacts.pdf
[vi] L. E. Brody, L. B. Barnett, and C. J. Mills, “Gender Differences Among Talented Adolescents: Research Studies by SMPY and CTY at Johns Hopkins,” in Competence and Responsibility: The Third European Conference of the European Council for High Ability, ed. K. A. Heller and E. A. Hany (Seattle: Hogrefe & Huber, 1994).
[viii] L. Brody & C. Mills, “Talent Search Research: What Have We Learned?,” High Ability Studies 16, No 1 (2005), p. 101, http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/routledg/chas/2005/00000016/00000001
[ix] Annual Survey of the Mathematical Sciences (AMS-ASA-IMS-MAA), Report on the 2004–2005 New Doctoral Recipients, Notices of the American Mathematical Society, (2006), p. 236, http://www.ams.org/employment/2005Survey-DG.pdf
[x] J. Leo, “What Larry Summers Meant to Say,” U.S. News and World Report, February 14, 2005, http://www.usnews.com/usnews/opinion/articles/050214/14john.htm
[xi] C. Murray, “The Inequality Taboo,” Commentary, September 2005, http://www.commentarymagazine.com/production/files/murray0905.html
[xii] National Association of Scholars, “Research: Who Chooses Science and Why?” Science Insights, 6, No 4 (2001), http://www.nas.org/publications/sci_newslist/6_4/b_careers.htm
[xiii] S. Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (New York: Viking, 2002), pp. 344-345.
[xiv] A. Gallagher & J. Kaufman, Gender Differences in Mathematics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).