We Are Losing Women from Mathematics

David M. Bressoud September, 2009

On Tuesday, September 22, I will be joining Sylvia Bozeman of Spelman College and Carlos Castillo-Chavez of Arizona State University to appear before the Congressional Diversity and Innovation Caucus to make a presentation on "Diversity and the Future of STEM: Filling the Undergraduate Mathematics Education Pipeline." I will be making the case that we are losing women, African-Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Native Americans from the undergraduate mathematics education pipeline. In this month's column, I will explain the situation with regard to women. Next month, I will share the data I have uncovered on minority representation in undergraduate mathematics.

The first graph (women as % of Math majors) shows the percentage of bachelor's degrees in Mathematics or Statistics awarded to women. The data come from the US Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) [1]. My graph is a bit deceptive since I am only showing the band of 40%–50% in order to accentuate the trends. The drop-off since 2001 is not as dramatic as this graphic suggests, but that does not change the fact that there has been a real and significant decrease.

The percentage of bachelor's degrees in Mathematics earned by women grew steadily throughout the 1970s and early '80s, surpassing 40% for the first time in 1973 and reaching 46.1% in 1985. It then held very steady within the narrow band of 46% to 48% until the early years of this century. Since then, we have seen a slow but unmistakable decline, dropping to 44.1% in 2007, the most recent year for which there is data.

The next graphic (Math majors by Gender) provides more detail of what has been happening. The early '80s saw significant growth in the number of all Mathematics majors, following a decade of precipitous decline from 27,442 majors in 1970 to only 11,078 in 1981. Women in particular were being drawn into the major in the early '80's, reaching their all-time peak as a percentage at 48.3% in 1988. The Mathematics major then entered a long period of decline that ended in 2001, during which time the numbers of men and women decreased at roughly the same rate. Since 2001, there has been a sharp rebound in the number of men majoring in Mathematics, a rebound that is echoed but much more weakly among women.

The Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences (CBMS) [2] numbers show a similar decline in the percentage of women since 2000. According to their data, the percentage of bachelor's degrees in the mathematical sciences earned by women were 42.2% in 1990, 43.6% in 1995, 42.3% in 2000, and 39.9% in 2005. The discrepancy is the result of differences in how these degrees are counted. Both NCES and CBMS numbers reflect degrees in Mathematics or Statistics. Only the CBMS numbers include Actuarial Science and Operations Research. And the NCES only assigns one major per graduate, so that if a student picks up a second major in Mathematics, that is counted in the CBMS numbers but not for the NCES data.

The CBMS data provide some additional insight into what has been happening in this century. From 2000 to 2005, the number of Mathematics majors at undergraduate colleges and comprehensive universities continued its decline, dropping a further 9%. The growth has come from research (doctoral-granting) universities, where the number of Mathematics majors has increased by 41%. As the CBMS data also show, the representation of women at research universities is much less than at other types of colleges. In 2005 under the CBMS counts, women accounted for 35.7% of the Mathematics or Statistics majors at research universities (see Disturbing Trends in CBMS data [3]).

It is interesting to compare the trends in Mathematics with what has happened to women in other mathematically-intensive majors (see Women as % of Total Degrees).

*For 1980 through 1989, Engineering includes Engineering Technologies.

Relatively speaking, Mathematics looks pretty good, though it is discouraging that over the period 1990 to 2007, as the percentage of all bachelor's degrees that went to women increased by four percentage points (from 53.2% in 1990 to 57.4% in 2007), the percentage of bachelor's degrees in Mathematics that went to women decreased by two points (from 46.2% to 44.1%). Computer and Information Science has been a disaster for women, dropping from a peak of 37.1% in 1984 to only 18.6% in 2007. Perhaps the most discouraging figures are for women in Engineering. After steadily building participation by women from 15.4% in 1990 to 20.8% in 2002, the next five years saw this slip back to 18.4%.

The brightest spots have been in the Biological and Physical Sciences. Women have been well-represented in the Biological Sciences since the late '80s, but the graph shows a real success story in the Physical Sciences. Admittedly starting from a very low rate of 23.7% in 1980, the Physical Sciences have steadily increased the participation of women to peaks of 42.2% in 2002 and 2005 before coming down just slightly to 40.9% in 2007. Even more impressive is the steady growth in the total number of women majoring in the Physical Sciences (see Physical Science Majors by Gender).

It is worth observing that while in 1990 Mathematics was a more popular major among women than the Physical Sciences (6,701 to 5,035), the situation was reversed by 2007 (6,594 in Mathematics versus 8,618 in the Physical Sciences) (see Women in Mathematics and the Physical Sciences). In fact, the impressive 30% growth in enrollments in the Physical Sciences from 1990 to 2007 is mostly the result of a 71% increase in the number of women. In contrast, the number of Mathematics majors grew by only 3% over this period as the number of women decreased.

I do not believe that the success in the Physical Sciences has been the result of happenstance. The period in question has been one of intense work in undergraduate physics education, from the Force Concept Inventory of Hestenes and Halloun [4] to Eric Mazur's work on clickers and Peer Instruction [5] (also see my column, Should Students Be Allowed to Vote? [6]). It was aided by the realization within the physics community that the situation was intolerable and had to be improved. While Physical Science is more than Physics, also including Chemistry, Geology, and Earth Science, all share a course in Mechanics as a prerequisite, and this is the course on which the physics education community focused.

There is a vibrant community of researchers who are seeking to apply to Calculus some of these hard-won insights into how to teach Mechanics. The problems are different and in many ways less tractable for Calculus, but progress is being made. Jerry Epstein has estimated that this task is ten years behind what those in physics education have accomplished. The important question will be whether or not there is the will within the mathematical community to learn from this research.

Acknowledgment. Thanks to Cathy Kessel for many helpful comments and suggestions.

[2] Lutzer, D. J., et al. 2007. Statistical Abstract of Undergraduate Programs in the Mathematical Sciences in the United States, Fall 2005. American Mathematical Society.

[3] Bressoud, D. 2008. Disturbing Trends in CBMS Data, MAA Online, June.

[4] Halloun, I., and D. Hestenes. 1985. Common Sense Concepts about Motion, Am. J. Phys. 53, 1056-1065.

[5] Mazur, E. 2009. Farewell, Lecture? Science. 2 January. 323:50–51.

[6] Bressoud, D. 2009. Should Students Be Allowed to Vote, MAA Online, March.

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David Bressoud is DeWitt Wallace Professor of Mathematics at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and President of the MAA. You can reach him at This column does not reflect an official position of the MAA.