How many times have we heard this one before? Women are underrepresented in many high tech (and high paying) career fields because we don’t have enough girls going into the STEM disciplines in school. And why is that? It’s a question which generally either draws confused silence or some vague assertions about social and cultural norms in response. But one professor at Stanford thinks she knows why we don’t have enough girls going into the challenging discipline of math and her answer may not be terribly popular.

Professor Jo Boaler first dismisses the idea that some people just have “math brains” and others don’t. (With the “some” and “others” generally winding up being men and women respectively.) Everyone with at least some capacity for “smarts” should be able to grasp math at the deepest levels, and yet fewer women go into the field and far more of the ones who do wind up dropping out early. She cites a depressing, if not horrifying statistic showing that in 2015, 76% of math doctorates were awarded to men. But women are just as smart as (if not smarter than) men on average, so what explains it? Apparently some people just don’t absorb information as quickly and need more time for “deep thinking” before they fully absorb such intricate material. And once again, by “some people” she means the girls. (Time Magazine, emphasis added)

Research tells us that lecturers typically speak at between 100 and 125 words a minute, but students can take note of only about 20 words a minute, often leaving them feeling frustrated and defeated…

When students struggle in speed-driven math classes, they often believe the problem lies within themselves, not realizing that fast-paced lecturing is a faulty teaching method. The students most likely to internalize the problem are women and students of color. This is one of the main reasons that these students choose not to go forward in mathematics and other STEM subjects, and likely why a study found that in 2011, 74% of the STEM workforce was male and 71% was white.

Women are just as capable as men of working at high speed, of course, but I’ve found in my own research that they are more likely to reject subjects that do not give access to deep understanding.

In the interest of brevity I’m only excerpting a couple of paragraphs here, but the author’s analysis is far more nuanced so you should read the entire piece rather relying on that bit. Along those lines, I don’t want to oversimplify Professor Boaler’s conclusions here, but a couple of them were truly remarkable enough to stop me in my tracks and make me want to comment on them.

Assuming I’m reading this correctly, Professor Boaler isn’t saying that women need to have the material spoon fed to them more slowly then men in order to excel in mathematics. In fact, she’s claiming quite the opposite, saying that the girls are every bit as capable of excelling in speed driven learning environments. The real issue to be addressed here is her conclusion that everyone studying math is overwhelmed with the volume of material they need to absorb, but that women are vastly more likely to give up in the face of the challenge. (There also seems to be at least a suggestion in her article that students of color are equally likely to throw in the towel regardless of gender, but we can leave that one for another day.)

I’m not sure what I would find more offensive if I were a woman reading this article. The old and discredited idea that female brains are poorer at math and science or this new assertion that the girls could succeed in these fields the same as men if they just weren’t so gosh darned ready to give up when the going got tough?

The problems we encounter in so many debates involving gender based comparisons are legendary. One part of the difficulty is caused by the fact that even here in the 21st century we really still know very little about how the brain processes information, along with many of it’s other functions. I tend to be a keen believer in the fact that men and women are distinctly different in a variety of notable (and frequently wonderful) ways, so there may be some fundamental differences between our brains as well. The other major issue is that so much of the evidence presented in these arguments is strictly anecdotal. We know the hard figures of how many women (as opposed to men) graduate in each field of study and hold jobs in various professions, but what we can’t lock down is why that is. There’s a lot of groupthink and herd mentality involved in the complex decision making process for new students entering college and then seeking work once they graduate. Sadly, these tend to be subjective discussions which are nearly impossibly to quantify.

We get some hints to be sure. Take for example the ongoing question of why women earn less on average than men. The Social Justice Warrior contingent will be quick to tell you that it’s because of awful, knuckle-dragging men refusing to offer “equal pay for equal work.” But there are figures out there which indicate, as Fivethirtyeight concluded a couple of years ago, that women tend to major in fields of study in college which funnel them into lower paying careers in the STEM fields. That’s one of those uncomfortable bits of evidence which nobody on cable news roundtables ever seems to want to discuss. But again, the information is at least partly anecdotal because we’re not answering the question of why.

In conclusion, returning to Professor Boaler’s theory, should we perhaps be teaching math at a “slower” pace so as to not overwhelm any of the students? Possibly. But we would then need some period of years to observe and determine if that resulted in a more even spread of men and women graduating or if the guys would simply continue to outpace the girls at same rate, but with more people of each gender graduating. That would be interesting to learn but it really only addresses the specific question of math studies. Perhaps a better experiment would be to study why men and women make the educational and career choices that they do and figure out a way to shift perceptions in those areas. Just tossing that out there as food for thought.