The face of mathematics is slowly changing. Althoughwomen continue to lag behind their male counterpartsin terms of achievements both in and out of theclassroom, new research fi nds that this gender gap isstarting to close.At St. John’s University, however, such a gap doesnot exist. Instead, things seem to be quite the opposite: inrecent years, there have actually been more female mathmajors than there are males.According to the Offi ce of Institutional Research, femalemath majors outnumber males 21-19 on the Queensand Staten Island campuses combined for the 2009-10school year. And while the women have only a slightedge over the men in the small department, it’s still asignifi cant fi nding.”The girl math majors are strong,” said Dr. CharlesTraina, chair of the math department. “Some of themseem to have much better analytical skills, some of themhave a better work ethic. In some cases some of them arevery, very effi cient and very conscientious.”Traina noted that many of his female students holdleadership positions in the Math Club at St. John’s andPi Mu Epsilon, a national math honor society, as wellas serving as representatives at the University’s OpenHouses, where prospective students have the chance tospeak with students and professors from many departments.”They seem more [willing] to come to bat,” he said.Over the years, Traina, chair of the department since1996, has had many of his female students move on toPhD programs in mathematics at rigorous universitieslike NYU and Columbia, while others have pursued lawdegrees or careers in actuarial science, using their sharp,analytical skills to their advantage.
One of Traina’s former students is Joan DeBello, whocurrently teaches mathematics and computer science inthe College of Professional Students at St. John’s, and isgoing for her PhD.
“What made me stay in the program [is that] I alwayshad good role models,” said DeBello, citing Traina andanother math professor, Dr. Theresa Barz, as positive influences on her in college.
During her time as a student at St. John’s, DeBellowas a member of Women in Science, a program at St.John’s that encourages women to take classes in mathand science-related subjects.
DeBello said she is hopeful about the state of womenin mathematics, despite the existing stereotypes.”The stereotype is that math is too hard [for women].You don’t always see a successful female out there,” shesaid, “but companies are starting to hire more femalesas CEOs.”
And this “stereotype” DeBello mentioned is one thateven high-profi le professionals have perpetuated.For instance, back in 2005, Lawrence H. Summers,then the President of Harvard University, provoked anoutcry when he said that so few women were successfulin the math and science fi elds because of an intrinsic,biological reason, rather than societal or environmentalinfl uences.
Sarah Nelson, a junior, is a shining example of a currentfemale math major poised to break down any preconceivednotions one might have of a female’s ability todistinguish herself in such a male-dominated fi eld. Nelsonwas one of 12 students accepted into a competitivesummer research program at Carnegie Mellon Universityin Pittsburgh. While there, she’ll study mathematicalfi nance and computer programming.
“I’m hoping to get some real research experience andto discover something on my own,” she said.
Nelson said she really became interested in the subjectback in high school, when she began studying moretheoretical math concepts. Now, she said she enjoys doingcomputations, learning techniques and solving problems,calling the art of mathematics “really beautiful.”
Traina credits Nelson’s quiet disposition as one ofher best qualities as a student.
“Sarah’s very, very good,” he said. “She’s very quietabout it, that’s the nice thing. She’s a very good student,she’s a good worker, but she doesn’t boast about it.”
Many experts claim that the disparity between boysand girls in math starts in elementary school, but new researchfrom the Center on Education Policy, a national,independent advocate for public education, seems encouraging.In an article entitled “Are There DifferencesIn Achievement Between Boys and Girls?” released inMarch 2010, the CEP stated that girls did “roughly aswell as boys” on standardized math tests in elementaryschool during the 2007-08 school year.
Not having someone to look up to may also infl uencea young girl’s attitude towards the subject.”The lack of a role model and positive infl uence iswhat steers people away,” said DeBello.
DeBello also noted that the media’s portrayal ofyoung boys and girls can also infl uence the way theytackle math. She said that Teen Umizoomi, a cartoon thatpremiered on Nickelodeon in February, features both aboy and a girl solving math problems, which may have apositive impact on the way young girls view the subjectin school.
In the New York City area, Allannah Thomas is helpingwomen achieve their fullest potential in mathematicsin a practical sense. In 1999, Thomas founded HeliconInc., a non-profi t organization specializing in math instructionfor low-income women who want to obtaintheir GEDs and pursue jobs in the electric, plumbing andcarpentry fi elds, among others, offering test preparationcourses for pre-employment exams.
Thomas works with various organizations likeSTRIVE (Support and Training Result in Valuable Employees)in Harlem, Brooklyn Woods, which preparesthe unemployed for jobs in carpentry, and PSE&G, aNew Jersey-based gas and electric company.
While the majority of her students are women, Thomassaid that about one quarter of her students are men.She also stated that women fail the GED at a rate of 51percent, while men fail it at a rate of 34 percent, calling ita “math issue,” and saying that there is “not one programin the entire city that just addresses the math issue.””Everybody keeps talking about literacy,” she said,”and it’s not about literacy for everyone.”
To combat this “math issue,” Thomas has startedwhat she calls a “Day of Remediation” and a “Day ofMemorization,” where her students must be able to showthat they know their basic times tables, something shesaid is often glossed over in elementary schools thesedays, even though knowing these basic skills is a necessityin order to move on to more diffi cult concepts. Shesaid that while she isn’t doing anything “spectacular,”her methods work, prompting more and more companiesto want to use her services to fi nd skilled employees.
Thomas explained that oftentimes, it is harder forwomen to get jobs because they may decide to start familiesand simply do not have the time to work full-time.She also noted that at companies like PSE&G, wagesfor technical trades jobs that are held predominantly bymen, are much higher than wages for clerical jobs, whichare held predominantly by women because the pre-employmentexams for the technical trades jobs featuresmany more diffi cult math problems.
While Thomas is dedicated to imparting math skillsto her female students so that they can obtain employmentopportunities, she also said that part of her job isbeing a cheerleader, encouraging her students to succeed.”Everybody needs to learn that women can do this
stuff,” she said. “First and foremost, women need to understandthat.”