Statement from Cathy Kessel,
President-elect of the Association for
Women in Mathematics
To be read into the public record on June 29, 2006 at the second meeting
of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel.
approved by the Executive Committee of AWM
Text of the petition approved by
Executive Committee of AWM.
The Association for Women in
Mathematics represents a broad spectrum of the mathematics
community, both women and men, from the United States and around the
world. Our purpose is:
• to encourage women and
girls to study and to have active careers in the mathematical
• to promote equal
opportunity and the equal treatment of women and girls in the
are pleased that President Bush and Education Secretary Spellings
recognize the importance of strengthening mathematics education, and
have shown this by appointing a National Mathematics Advisory Panel.
However, we have serious concerns about the panel as currently
constituted. We would have preferred to see more mathematicians and
more than 6 women on a panel of 17. But our greatest concern is that
its vice-chair, Dr. Camilla Benbow, is best known for the hypothesis
that there are inevitable gender differences in favor of males at
the highest level of mathematical performance. This hypothesis has
already done serious damage (citations are below); furthermore,
there is substantive evidence against it (again, citations are
In 1980, Camilla
Benbow and Julian Stanley published an article in Science
reporting large gender differences in “mathematical reasoning
Their evidence was scores on the SAT taken by 7th graders as part of
a talent search for a program at Johns Hopkins University. In their
conclusion Benbow and Stanley explicitly favored (their word) “the
hypothesis that sex differences in achievement in and attitude
towards mathematics result from superior male mathematical ability .
. . [which] is probably an expression of a combination of both
endogenous and exogenous variables.”
The result of this
article was, as Dr. Benbow and her colleagues noted twenty years
a “media field day.” Headlines suggested that mathematical ability
was determined at conception. Newsweek asked, “Do males have
a math gene?” TIME reported that, “A new study says that
males may be naturally abler [in mathematics] than females.”
Science itself asked, “Are girls born with less [math] ability?”
A 1986 study has documented the negative impact of this publicity on
the expectations of both girls and their parents with respect to
their achievement in mathematics.[iii]
Critiques of Benbow
and Stanley's work became a small industry in psychology. We
consider only one issue on which all sides agree. If, indeed there
is an innate gender imbalance in mathematical ability, then it
should be roughly constant over time. But the available evidence
does not support this.[iv]
The male to female ratio of Hopkins talent search participants with
scores over 700 has declined. In 1983, Benbow and Stanley reported a
ratio of 13 boys to 1 girl between 1980 and 1982.[v]
Hopkins researchers reported that the average was 5.7 to 1 between
1984 and 1991.[vi]
Six years later, in 1997, Julian Stanley reported this ratio as 4 to
In 2005, Hopkins researchers reported this ratio as 3 to 1.[viii]
This reflects trends
in other measures. For example, about one third of the PhDs in
mathematics now go to women.[ix]
changes, the 1983 13 to 1 ratio, together with Dr. Benbow's
subsequent work, is still cited in the national media,[x],[xi],[xii]
in works for general audiences,[xiii]
and in academic writing.[xiv]
We hope that the
National Mathematics Advisory Panel will debunk myths about
mathematical ability and its relationship to gender, ethnicity, and
race. We are concerned that Dr. Benbow is so closely identified with
her 1983 statistics and hypothesis that her presence on the Panel
signals – in perception or in reality – a bias against women and
girls. The Panel is charged with fostering greater knowledge of and
improved performance in mathematics among American students. It
would be unfortunate if its impact were just the opposite.
C. P. Benbow and J. Stanley, “Sex
differences in mathematical ability: fact or artifact?,”
Science, 210, no. 12 (1980): 1262-1264,
C. P. Benbow, D. Lubinski, D. Shea,
and H. Eftekhari-Sanjani, “Sex Differences in Mathematical
Ability at Age 13: Their Status 20 Years Later,”
Psychological Scientist, 11, no. 6 (2000): 474-487, p.
J. Eccles and J. Jacobs, “Social
Forces Shape Math Attitudes and Performance,” Signs,
11, no. 2 (1986): 367-380.
E. Spelke, “Sex Differences in Intrinsic Aptitude for
Mathematics and Science?: A Critical Review,”
American Psychologist, 60, No. 9 (2005): 950–958,
C. P. Benbow and J. Stanley, “Sex
Differences in Mathematical Reasoning Ability: More Facts,”
Science, 222 (1983): 1029–1031, http://www.vanderbilt.edu/Peabody/SMPY/ScienceMoreFacts.pdf
L. E. Brody, L. B. Barnett, and C.
J. Mills, “Gender Differences Among Talented Adolescents:
Research Studies by SMPY and CTY at Johns Hopkins,” in
Competence and Responsibility: The Third European Conference
of the European Council for High Ability, ed. K. A.
Heller and E. A. Hany (Seattle: Hogrefe & Huber, 1994).
J. Stanley, Letter to
the editor, Johns Hopkins Magazine, September, 1997,
L. Brody & C. Mills, “Talent Search Research: What Have We
Learned?,” High Ability Studies 16, No 1 (2005), p.
Annual Survey of the Mathematical Sciences (AMS-ASA-IMS-MAA),
Report on the 2004–2005 New Doctoral Recipients, Notices
of the American Mathematical Society, (2006), p. 236,
J. Leo, “What Larry Summers Meant to Say,” U.S. News and
World Report, February 14, 2005,
C. Murray, “The Inequality Taboo,” Commentary,
September 2005, http://www.commentarymagazine.com/production/files/murray0905.html
National Association of Scholars,
“Research: Who Chooses Science and Why?” Science
Insights, 6, No 4 (2001),
S. Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human
Nature (New York: Viking, 2002), pp. 344-345.
A. Gallagher & J. Kaufman, Gender Differences in
Mathematics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
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