Math, physics still short on female majors at Mac

By Matea Wasend

Macalester professor David Bressoud is worried that girls are being discouraged from excelling in math. As president of the Mathematical Association of America, he probably knows what he’s talking about. Last year, he wrote a column for the MAA entitled “We are Losing Women from Matehmatics,” explaining that after a steady increase in female undergraduate math majors in the 70s and 80s, there has been a national decline over the past ten years.

“Math actually does pretty well for female majors,” Bressoud said. “At its best it was at about 45 or 46 percent.”

But now, females make up only 42 percent of undergraduate math majors nationwide, according to Bressoud’s numbers. The National Science Foundation cites even bleaker numbers-it says that in 2006, only 26.8 percent of undergraduates earning bachelors degrees in math were women. Computer Science and Engineering, fields that have always struggled to bring in females, have seen hits as well-now only 18 percent of bachelor’s degree earners in both fields are women, Bressoud said.

Macalester is reflecting these discrepancies in the fields of Math, Computer Science and Physics. Out of 39 Math majors at Macalester this year, only 13 are females. For computer science, it’s 4 out of 16 and for physics, it’s 3 out of 17.

Those numbers look pretty similar to those of ten years ago, when 6 out of 29 Macalester Math majors were women.

This stagnancy is a sharp contrast to the fields of the physical sciences, which have seen a sharp upswing in female participants over the last 30 years. The National Science Foundation recorded that in 2006, 59.8 percent of bachelor’s degree earners in biological and agricultural sciences were women-compared to 25 percent in 1966. Macalester has seen the fruits of that increase-this year, 54 out of 78 Biology majors are women.

There are larger issues at stake than being able to boast of balanced ratio of males and females within a major. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women still earned only about 81 percent of what men did as of 2005, despite comprising nearly half of the workforce. That’s because women are under-represented in the highest earning jobs-many of which require math and science education.

“My concern is that because the percentage of female math majors is going down, that there are signals being sent to young women, discouraging them from mathematics,” Bressoud said. “Are we encourageing our undergraduates to pursue fields they might find fulfilling?”

According to Bressoud, interest in mathematics is actually higher among females than males in elementary school. But somewhere along the way-high school, perhaps-many become discouraged.

He speculated this drop in self-confidence in math explains the shortage of female math majors. At Macalester, Bressoud said, females who get a B in a math class might be more likely than males to take that as an indication that they shouldn’t pursue a major.

Macalester has seen some efforts over the past few years to address the gender discrepancy among math majors, even as it celebrated the increase in women in some of the other sciences. Heading some of these is the student organization Women in Science and Math.

The goals of the group, explained board member Christina Fitzsimmons ’11, are to bring together women interested in the sciences, as well as educate the community about issues pertaining to women in math and science fields.

She said it does so through informal meetings-like ice cream socials-as well as more formal events to connect students, alumni and the community. The group also works with local schools, like all-girls middle school Laura Jeffrey.

Fitzsimmons, who is a Chemistry and Biology double-major, attributed the solid numbers of females in many of the Macalester science majors to the welcoming atmosphere of many science classes.

“Many students come to Macalester uncertain of what major they want to pursue, and these students have a very positive experience with science classes here at Macalester,” Fitzsimmons wrote in an email. “In this regard, our faculty are amazing. their enthusiasm for teaching and their passion for their subjects is highly contagious.”

Bressoud echoed this sentiment, emphasizing the importance of teachers following up with their students.

“It’s about active recruitment,” Bressoud said. “You have to find students who are interested and encourage them. I try to be very encouraging of all of my students.