For Women to Think Mathematically, Colleges Should Think Creatively

April 15, 2012

The dearth of women in the so-called hard—meaning mathematically intensive—sciences in the United States has spawned a veritable industry. Hundreds of research papers have been published, hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren in nearly 50 countries have been studied, and hundreds of millions of dollars of public funds have been spent, all with the aim of solving the "problem" of gender gap in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Meanwhile, fields such as biology and the medical sciences, which are not as mathematically intensive, have witnessed a major reversal of gender representation since the women's movement began, in the 1960s. The abundance of women in those fields apparently is not considered problematic. The gender gap in the hard sciences, however, which is viewed by many decision makers as a detriment to society, stubbornly persists. Apocalyptic predictions suggest that, despite recent gains and aggressive hiring policies, gender representation in science faculties might not reach equity for another century.

Studies by psychologists, sociologists, and the American Association of University Women blame causes as varied as cultural bias, innate female affinity for "people" versus male affinity for "things," lack of early encouragement, the conflicts of motherhood, and biological differences in mathematical abilities.

In The Mathematics of Sex: How Biology and Society Conspire to Limit Talented Women and Girls, Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams conclude that the single overriding cause of the scarcity of women in the hard sciences is women's choices and preferences. While bias, discrimination, and biological differences may have some secondary influence, they found, women simply prefer careers that don't involve math over careers in engineering, physics, mathematics, operations research, computer science, and chemistry. Why this is so remains unanswered.

Of the myriad articles on gender differences in the STEM fields, there is apparently little information from actual hard scientists. What does it take to do hard science and to be successful at it? We, a mathematician and a computer scientist, contend that research on women's underrepresentation in science itself has a huge gap.

The experts on gender differences in science have completely ignored gender differences in creativity. They are aware of the central role of creativity in science and, in fact, explicitly acknowledge the "highly creative thinking required of mathematicians," but they fail to connect the dots between creativity, hard sciences, and basic gender differences. In an article to appear in The Mathematical Intelligencer, we contend that consideration of creativity and certain closely associated factors offers several key explanatory and constructive ideas on gender gaps in the mathematically intensive subfields of STEM.

The notion of creativity itself is a difficult topic, and gender gaps in creativity are doubly so. But they are well-studied topics. The 2008 article "Gender Differences in Creativity," by the psychologists John Baer, of Rider University, and James C. Kaufman, of California State University at San Bernardino, for example, contains more than 180 references.

While results of studies on gender differences in creative ability are inconclusive, there is a broad consensus among experts and lay observers alike that, with the exception of creative writing and acting, men exhibit substantially more creative achievement than women. As Jane Piirto, a creativity expert at Ashland University, wrote, "Where are the publicly and professionally successful women visual artists, musicians, mathematicians, scientists, composers, film directors, playwrights, and architects?"

Because even the gender-gap experts recognize that mathematical thinking is a creative enterprise, the research on women's underrepresentation in other highly creative fields may lead to insights about women's underrepresentation in the hard sciences as well.

For instance, three factors that are widely accepted as being positively correlated with creativity are playfulness, curiosity, and willingness to take risks. Studies have found that boys and men are generally more playful than girls and women, and are more curious and more willing to take risks, which could help explain why men are more creatively productive than women in general, and in particular, in the hard sciences.

This also suggests several possible remedies. To encourage more play "on the job," colleges and universities could emulate nonacademic institutions like Google, Bell Labs, and IDEO by establishing playrooms and allocating time specifically for the purpose of fostering creativity. Another idea is to create an "innovation hothouse," like Stanford University's Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, where the goals are teaching imagination, choosing risky, out-of-the-box solutions, and working through repeated failures as part of the creative process.

Some of these ideas could be implemented effectively and quickly within current academic environments for the benefit of students and faculty alike. Encouraging a culture of creative opportunity may not directly increase the relative creative achievement of women in the hard sciences, of course, but it's worth a try.

As Charles Day, a Physics Today editor, wrote, if some of these ideas pan out, follow-up studies by science-gender-gap researchers will find a welcome rise in the number of girls and women who choose to become hard scientists. Then we may not have to wait a century to see gender equity in these fields.

Theodore P. Hill is a professor emeritus of mathematics at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a research scholar in residence at the California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo. Erika Rogers is retired from the California Polytechnic State University, where she was a professor of computer science and director of the university honors program.