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  • Subject area(s): Science
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  • Published on: 15th October 2019
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Ever since the beginning of time women have been fighting to gain attention in the mathematical arena. For decades they were seen as persona non grata but hard work and perseverance has led to tremendous breakthroughs as there are instances where females are either equally performing or even out performing their male counterparts in math-related disciplines. Ceci, et al in “Women's Underrepresentation in Science: Sociocultural and Biological Considerations” (2009) posits that male and female college mathematics students receive similar grades and ever since 1996 there has been an increase in the percentage of females receiving bachelors and doctorates in STEM (Science, Technology and Mathematics) fields (221). As Connie McNelly and Sorina Vlaicu in “Exploring Institutional Hiring Trends of Women in the U.S. STEM Professoriate” (2010) puts it, there is proof to suggest that despite the large amount of females earning degrees and doctorates in math-related fields, they are not entering the science and math workforce at the same rate (786). Why then does a gender gap exist in math-related careers? There is a general consensus that a gender disparity exists within math-related fields, however, there are several arguments which seek to explain this phenomenon.

Harvard University’s Elizabeth Spelke does not agree with the general view that there is a genetic base for one’s propensity towards math and science. In "Sex Differences in Intrinsic Aptitude for Mathematics and Science? A Critical Review" (2005) Spelke disputes three major arguments put forward to explain the disproportion as it relates to the percentage of males and females in science and mathematics careers. The first argument suggested that as early as birth, males are better suited to develop the necessary math skills as they were focused on objects while females were focused on sentimental things and people (950). However, according to Spelke's investigations, there is no evidence to support claims for males being more preoccupied with objects over females (951). The genetic difference between male and female, which gave males the advantage in mathematical reasoning ability, was another claim which Spelke refuted from her research and added that males and females seem to be alike in their ability to learn math and science. The third argument suggested that males showed dominance due to their unpredictability in intrinsic mathematical capacity but Spelke positioned that both sexes show equal talent in performing the main fundamentals of mathematical reasoning. She disputes the claims that men are more inclined towards mathematics based on "cognitive sex differences" (950) and proudly notes that research negate the fact that any of these arguments hold true as it was found that males and females, in relation to science and mathematics, have the same ability (951).

On the other hand, Sapna Cheryan and Victoria Plaut in “Understanding the Paradox in Math-Related Fields: Why Do Some Gender Gaps Remain While Others Do Not?” (2010) brings to light the social factors which to them best explains the causes for the scarce number of interested women in the STEM field. They outlined how one’s view of having something in common with persons already in the field as well as identity threat helps to determine one’s likelihood of pursuing a career in any math-related field (475). They point to several ways in which one’s identity may be threatened which included the fear of being discriminated, ratifying harmful stereotypes or worse being unappreciated and underrepresented in the STEM field (477). They conclude that despite the fact that there are other social factors which explain one’s interest in a field, their research points to having a sense of likeness to the people within the same discipline as a key predictor of females interest in that field (484).

In the same way, Sapna Cheryan in "Understanding the Paradox in Math-Related Fields: Why Do Some Gender Gaps Remain While Others Do Not?" (2012) puts forward that despite the fact that women are excelling in math in the classroom, there is still a gap in the number of women in math related fields. She posits that one factor which influence this "paradox" is the fact that negative stereotypes are attached to the math and science fields and those within them which leads to females having decreased interest in the field. Cheryan also points out that the qualities which are associated with females are in direct contrast to the stereotypes of those in math-related fields and once they are prominent, the less females will identify with them (185). Cheryan also argues that since math-related careers are seen as being time exhaustive and incompatible with goals that focus on working together and helping people, communal goals, in spite of the fact that it has been argued that math-related careers involve aiding and contributing to society through collaboration, women opt to deter from engaging in such careers (186).

On a similar note, Amanda Diekman, et al in “Malleability in Communal Goals and Beliefs Influences Attraction to STEM Careers: Evidence for a Goal Congruity Perspective” (2011) puts forward the “goal congruity perspective” which argues that there are two cognitive distinctions which determines one’s inclination towards STEM fields. They state that there are those who value communal goals and those who have certain views as it relates to activities which enable or obstruct one’s goals (902). Diekman et al argue that women place a higher value on these goals and as a result they have decreased interest or lose interest in STEM fields since they fail to satisfy their goal of working with and helping others. For them, the juncture between these goals and opinions about how these goals may be achieved affects one’s interest or lack thereof in STEM fields (905).

In light of the above arguments, Stephen Ceci et al in “Women's Underrepresentation in Science: Sociocultural and Biological Considerations” (2009) attempt to absolve inconsistencies in the arguments which stem from biological to social causes for the underrepresentation of women in math-related fields. They found the evidence for both sides to be inconsistent and inadequate; however they came up with a structure to arrive at the root causes (218). Whilst they found that the link between biology and mathematical ability to be lacking, they argued that there is, to some extent, a biological difference as it relates to sex and one’s intrinsic mathematical ability. For them, it is not only biological; it has significant social influences (251). Additionally, they believe that vulnerability to stereotypes and cultural prejudices, regardless of one’s ability affects the individual’s career decisions (244). They conclude that women’s inclination towards STEM careers whether by forced or unrestricted choice, may be influenced by both social and biological factors (251).

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