Ithaca College Professor Wants More Girls Interested in Math

By Breana Cacciotti, December 12, 2016

Professor Wants More Girls Interested in Math

Occupations related to STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — are among the fastest growing in the United States, but lagging numbers for women studying math make accessing those jobs difficult. Ithaca College Assistant Professor of Mathematics Cristina Gomez wants to help the next generation of teachers change that.

Gomez presented the Randolph Lecture in Mathematics Education at the fall 2016 Seaway Section Meeting of the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) at the Rochester Institute of Technology on Oct. 22. She discussed the current gap in gender and ethnic diversity in mathematics and programs that have been successful in bridging the divide.

A little more than half the U.S. population is female. However, Gomez says starting in elementary school and on into college, on average there are more males taking advanced math courses than females. As of 2014, only 42 percent of bachelor’s degrees in math went to women.

“It’s huge gap that doesn’t really represent the population,” Gomez said. “If you don’t have access to advanced mathematics in middle schools and high schools, then you won’t have access to careers in the STEM fields.”

That lack of access is borne out in the number of women working in STEM jobs. While women account for roughly 48 percent of the U.S. workforce, they make up less than a quarter of STEM workers.

Gomez says that the greater number of male students taking advanced math courses is tied to teachers giving extra attention to them in class, which is largely due to societal expectations that men are traditionally seen as more interested in problem solving and technology.

“Schools, and teachers in particular, perpetuate these views in many classrooms,” Gomez said. “Teachers ask more questions to male students, give them more support and have higher expectations for them.”

At least some of that extra attention is due to unconscious bias. A 2015 study by two professors at Tel Aviv University in Israel found that elementary school teachers are more likely to give girls lower grades than they deserve on math tests, which can discourage girls from taking more difficult courses later in their education.

Gomez says that women are not the only group to have been at the disadvantage in math. People of color are also underrepresented in the field.

“Because most of the school districts in the U.S. are funded based on property taxes, the economic disparities take a direct effect in school funding, and cities and towns with more resources are predominantly white,” Gomez said.

In her research, Gomez found that the programs that have worked best at increasing diversity are those that only offer one level of math. An institutional program at the State University of New York at Potsdam in the 1980s offered no advanced or remedial levels of math courses, and with everyone taking the same level it resulted in more diversity and overall math students in New York. Gomez says that there are similar programs throughout Europe, where there has been great success in closing the gender and ethnicity gaps.

“Programs have been most successful when everyone takes the same level of math all four years, no remedial or advanced, and by the end there are equal levels of interest in all students,” Gomez said.

Gomez hopes to change the mindset that being good at math is written into your genes. Instead, she wants people to see math as a skill that anyone is capable of developing. She wants her own students to be aware of the issue of diversity in math so that they can work to get all of their future students interested in the subject, regardless of their gender or ethnicity.

“We need the faculty to talk and do something about it because we are the ones who can make the change,” Gomez said.