The majority of the girls who have been chosen to represent the United States in international mathematics competitions come from a set of about 20 high schools with elite math teams.
This extreme concentration of talent strongly indicates the crucial role that environmental factors, not just innate ability, play in shaping the accomplishments of students. “It’s significant that the top girls are coming from a very, very small subset of schools with strong math programs,” says Ellison. “That suggests most of the girls who could be doing well, aren’t doing well. The thousands and thousands of other schools in the United States must have a lot of talent, too, but it’s not coming out.”
That is very interesting. And something that, as a nerd of the female variety, I don’t find all that surprising. I may spend a lot of time complaining about those darn kids I’m in university with right now, but high school wasn’t that long ago. I remember the general pressures from teachers and peers, and I have no doubt that those can effect one’s ability to learn and perform academically. I was actually lucky, at that age. I was on my school’s quiz bowl team, which was composed of unabashed nerds, and I think that was good for me. I also did get to go to a math competition one year – I didn’t make it past the first round – but I do recall how few other girls were around. The only reason I was even there myself was because I’d been encouraged by my parents and my math teacher at the time.
I have something of a tortured relationship with math, to be honest. I’m not too bad at it. I’m even good at it, sometimes. But I crapped out after I finished my third semester of calculus because, simply, I don’t really like it. The third semester of calculus was actually one further than I needed to go for my degree, but at the time I did it because I was considering a minor in math, and because the professor I’d had for calculus II talked me in to it. And I’m not sorry. But I’m also mostly not sorry I stopped there.
That’s where the love-hate relationship comes in. Sometimes I love math. It’s beautiful. It’s fascinating. It’s a puzzle. Sometimes I hate it, because I find it so incredibly frustrating, and it makes me feel so incredibly dumb, and those times inevitably lead to me screaming and throwing my book across the room. (You think I’m kidding, but I’m not.) In the interest of not causing my fiance or my cats to end up with PTSD, it’s probably a good thing that I did call it quits. I may be smart enough – more than smart enough – for math, but I don’t have the patience, or the right attitude for it, I guess.
But sometimes, I still feel a little guilty. Because every time this issue is brought up, this idea that Maybe Women Just Aren’t Good At Math, I’m forced to remember that I was, and that I gave up on it. Then again, if you’re struggling up the ladder to upper division mathematics, you should probably have a better reason to do it than to make a point to a bunch of dicky misogynists that will dismiss you as the exception rather than the rule anyway.