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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man? - Christina Sommers

Math 55 is advertised in the Harvard catalog as “prob­ably the most difficult undergraduate math class in the country.” It is leg­endary among high school math prodigies, who hear terrifying stories about it in their computer camps and at the Math Olympiads. Some go to Harvard just to have the opportunity to enroll in it. Its formal title is “Honors Advanced Calculus and Linear Algebra,” but it is also known as “math boot camp” and “a cult.” The two-semester fresh­man course meets for three hours a week, but, as the catalog says, homework for the class takes between 24 and 60 hours a week.

Math 55 does not look like America. Each year as many as 50 students sign up, but at least half drop out within a few weeks. As one former student told The Crimson newspaper in 2006, “We had 51 students the first day, 31 students the second day, 24 for the next four days, 23 for two more weeks, and then 21 for the rest of the first semester.” Said another student, “I guess you can say it’s an episode of ‘Survivor’ with people voting themselves off.” The final class roster, according to The Crimson: “45 percent Jewish, 18 percent Asian, 100 percent male.”

Why do women avoid classes like Math 55? Why, in fact, are there so few women in the high echelons of academic math and in the physi­cal sciences?

Women now earn 57 percent of bachelors degrees and 59 percent of masters degrees. According to the Survey of Earned Doctorates, 2006 was the fifth year in a row in which the majority of research Ph.D.’s awarded to U.S. citizens went to women. Women earn more Ph.D.’s than men in the humanities, social sciences, education, and life sciences. Women now serve as presidents of Harvard, MIT, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and other leading research universities. But elsewhere, the figures are different. Women comprise just 19 percent of tenure-track professors in math, 11 percent in physics, 10 percent in computer science, and 10 percent in electrical engineering. And the pipeline does not promise statistical parity any time soon: women are now earning 24 percent of the Ph.D.’s in the physical sciences—way up from the 4 percent of the 1960s, but still far behind the rate they are winning doctorates in other fields. “The change is glacial,” says Debra Rolison, a physical chemist at the Naval Research Laboratory.


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