Gender Disparities in Math: Problems and Solutions

Two Commonwealth School math teachers reflect on their workand livesas women in math...

"Are you a girl?"

Meena Boppana, then twelve years old, had just finished competing in a state-level math tournament. She remembers waiting surrounded by peers and hundreds of spectators as the organizers tabulated the top scorers. But there was a problem.

A prize was to be awarded to both the top male and top female scorer, but the competition organizers had forgotten to ask for the participants' gender. So an elderly (male) organizer went down the list of competitors one by one, read their name aloud, and asked "Are you a girl?" 

"When it got to 'Boppana, Meena, 14th place: are you a girl?' I wasn't sure whether to feel happy or embarrassed to receive the prize for 'top girl' in New York State," Boppana says. 

More than a decade later, that memory is the first to spring to mind when Boppana reflects on what it has historically meant to be a woman in math. Now the newest math teacher at Commonwealth School, she brings a fierce advocacy for gender equity, as well as broader diversity and inclusion issues, to her classroom and the school itself. So, too, does Boppana's colleague and Commonwealth alumna Anna Moss '06, who has spent years examining the gender dynamics in her math and physics classrooms, tweaking her teaching methods along the way to address the subtle and not-so-subtle inequities that have plagued the STEM fields, well, since always. 

Here they share their experiences as women (and girls) in math, teaching it, modeling it, and trying to make it a more equitable field. 


The same gender disparities that struck Boppana as a twelve-year-old followed her to undergraduate studies at Harvard. She arrived excited to pursue her love of math but was soon disheartened to learn that there were no tenured women faculty in the math department, no female students in the most intense freshman math class, and only a few female students graduating with a primary concentration in math. 

Inspired by Nancy Hopkins and other pioneering female scientists at MIT who quantified gender inequities at the Institute and sparked real change, Boppana soon co-directed a survey* of Harvard math undergraduates, ultimately concluding that the dearth of women in Harvard's math program was far more than the oft-cited "pipeline" issue. (*One-third response rate among all math concentrators at Harvard, 150 respondents total.)

"The tale that women are coming into Harvard knowing less math and consequently not majoring in math is missing much of the picture," Boppana says. "Women are dropping out of math during their years at Harvard, with female math majors writing theses and continuing on to graduate school at far lower rates than their male math major counterparts. And it's a cultural issue. Our survey indicated that many women would like to be involved in the math department and aren't, most women feel uncomfortable as a result of the gender gap, and women feel uncomfortable in math department common spaces." 

The survey led Boppana to co-start the Harvard Gender Inclusivity in Math student organization. "I poured my energy into growing this organization, part community for gender minorities and allies in math, part activist organization to push for concrete change," Boppana says. "It was an interesting experience, studying at an institution while simultaneously pushing back against it."

As an undergrad studying physics and engineering at New York University, Moss was also one of only a few women. Coming from Commonwealth—where she remembers math classes full of girls, even outnumbering boys—just put the disparities in her undergraduate program into sharper relief. Moss says her high school experience was the "exception to the rule," where all her science teachers were women and all her English teachers were men. Today, the lack of representation of women math teachers—even at Commonwealth—remains a huge barrier to gender equity. "Teaching is a very women-heavy profession, but when math gets perceived as serious, which I think it is in high school, there tend to be more men teaching those classes," Moss says. "As a kid you learn math from your homeroom teacher when it's fractions and decimals. Then you hit trigonometry and calculus, and, suddenly, there are no more girls [teaching]."

Moss saw these polarities at play while earning her Ed.M. at Boston University Wheelock College of Education & Human Development: women far outnumbered men as elementary and middle school math teachers, dropping off sharply in "higher level" math. "The guys were often the high school math teachers," she says. "Guys don't teach little kids math at all." 

Of course, obstacles for women in math aren't relegated to education. After graduating, Boppana encountered the same stubborn disparities in Silicon Valley working to diversify recruiting practices in the startup scene. "Many people think of women in STEM through the metaphor of a leaky pipeline, where women are 'dropping out' at every stage," Boppana says. "I take issue with this metaphor, mainly because colleges then blame high school for their lack of 'pipeline' and industry blames colleges for the lack of 'pipeline.' So, no one takes responsibility for the problem in the end. I think we need to attack the pipeline at all levels simultaneously." 


Given her undergrad and graduate experiences, Moss has tried to implement gender disparity interventions in the classroom since she started teaching more than a decade ago, from "blind" grading (reviewing assignments one question at a time and without student names) to steering students to a growth-based mindset ("I think that helps girls more," she says). Her approach has also evolved over the years. Just one example: she no longer prioritizes neatness in students' work, which is often considered a feminine trait. "'I actually think that's pretty harmful to 15-year-olds who are like, 'I'm sorry my handwriting is garbage,'" Moss says. She also bases her word problems on her students and their interests. "Seeing themselves as part of the class, I think, is pretty important," she says.

Undergirding all these efforts is simply being visible as a woman in math, Moss says. "Half of my strategy is being a role model of someone who loves math but not just math and is also a girl," she says. "I like the idea of being an example in the classroom of someone who loves and is passionate about math—but it's not my life." 

Modeling that for young women and girls—that you can enjoy math even if it doesn't define your high school experience—is crucial, Moss says. In high school and even more so in college, where your interests can so easily lock you into a particular track, it's easy to drop out of math if it's "not what you want to do."

Boppana sets a similar example and brings some of the more traditional high school math experience in math clubs, teams, and camps, all of which are popular among Commonwealth students. She also reminds her fellow math teachers to be mindful of the small ways in which they and their teaching practices can contribute to gender imbalance. She recommends math educators read Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele in particular. "It is full of research on how something as subtle as asking for one's gender before taking the SAT can affect one's score," Boppana notes.


The roots of gender disparities may go deeper than a high school math classroom, but it's still an important battleground in the fight for gender equity. "While early childhood is certainly important, if those who have successfully been nurtured through early childhood and middle school then flounder in high school, what was the point?" Boppana says. Taking advanced math courses in high school also seems to be a predictor of career advancement and earning potential later in life, so achieving gender parity in the high school math classroom can help close the pay gap and chip away (if not break) glass ceilings. 

Mindful of gender expectations foisted on her students, Moss says girls may have societal "permission" to be more emotive than boys, but when that translates into more girls openly talking about, say, how they may be struggling in math, it creates an illusion that math is easier for boys, particularly if those boys tend to have the confidence to speak up more in class. 

"If you're a girl and you're constantly feeling like you're not as good as those five boys [in your math class], you tend to internalize it. Then it becomes 'I guess I'm not as good as those boys.' And then that becomes, 'I guess I'm not as good as boys,'" Moss says. "It's an issue of society being telling you whether or not your voice matters," noting that the voices of people of color are often particularly diminished. The intersectionality of these issues is top of mind for Boppana as well.  
"When we talk about women in math, we must also acknowledge the exacerbated issues for minorities in math," Boppana says. "I am a woman in math. I am also Indian-American. That has affected the way that I have experienced being a woman in math," as does having a mathematician for a father. 

For Moss, student readiness—who is prepared for what level of math and why—gets at the heart of many of these intersectional issues. Commonwealth students are united in their zest for learning but, coming from a variety of backgrounds—public school, private school, homeschooling—their foundations can vary widely. The school has always tried to "meet students where they are," but Moss is quick to acknowledge that we can do more, such as reevaluating how students progress through Commonwealth's rigorous math curriculum, as well as the curriculum itself; teaching students about "imposter syndrome"; and fostering a growth mindset in students and even amongst fellow faculty members.  


Despite the persistence of gender inequity in math, Boppana and Moss say things are getting better. 
"Since I participated in math competitions a decade ago, the number of women competing at the highest levels has grown," Boppana says—and some of this growth can be attributed to Boppana herself. The Math Prize for Girls, an annual math competition at MIT with a $25,000 top prize, has driven interest and engagement in math among girls. Boppana's father, a mathematician and math educator, actually established the contest after watching her go through math competitions and seeing the need for such an event.
A proliferation of specialized math and science teaching programs point to the field gaining respect and validation since Moss was in grad school too, she says. "Just because you did well at math and science in your past does not necessarily mean you can teach it," Moss says. "You should learn how to teach it, I think this actually is a big difference and a big change that will help [gender parity]. If you haven't seen a lot of women who are good at math and science, you're less likely to believe that they're out there."

Both agree the most encouraging development is the students themselves. Moss says she no longer hears things like "my middle school teacher always said I was good at math—for a girl." And more students seem to enjoy math in a constellation of other interests; to Moss, that's a good thing. "I see a lot more kids who come in with passing interest in math, which I actually think is important," she says. "Even my 'mathier' advisees are into things that aren't math. They're like, 'I'm not just the kid who does math camp. I have to talk to you today about modern Islamic societies and how cool Turkey is... I think it's good for our 'math kids.'"

The shift to online learning seems to have at least the potentially democratizing effect on the classroom as well. Virtual classes have certainly changed the dynamic of discussions, with some of the quieter students speaking up more—and vice versa. And those hyper-competitive math students can no longer peek at and immediately compare test scores on physical pieces of paper as they're passed out in class. (Everything is digital now.) "I'm curious if it will mean that we have fewer kids thinking that they are bottom of the pack," Moss says.

"This is going to sound strange, but for me, true gender inclusivity means that women do not feel any obligation whatsoever to pursue a career in STEM," Boppana says. She recalls leaving the private sector in Silicon Valley—"just another woman dropping out of tech"—to pursue teaching and being told that she "had a moral imperative to stay in tech to fix the culture for others," she says. "This places the onus of fixing the culture squarely on those who are being most affected by it and those without the power to affect change. 
"Underrepresented folks in STEM should be able to do whatever they want. It is their life!"  

Learn more about math at Commonwealth.