[MenTeach: What if you changed ‘girl’ in this article to ‘boy’ and ‘women’ to ‘men’ and offered early education careers or nurturing careers for men? Would you consider being a role model for boys and men to teach?]
Ask a 7-year-old girl what she wants to be when she grows up, and the possibilities are endless. She may tell you she wants to be a doctor or lawyer one day then decide to be an astronaut or teacher the next.
Ask a 17-year-old girl the same question, and if she is excelling in mathematics, she might tell you she wants to explore her strengths and become an engineer, a mathematical researcher, or a college professor.
But history has shown that teenage girls who plan careers in mathematics are more likely to change their plans than pursue them.
An article released this year by the American Association of University Women, an advocacy group designed to promote education and equity for women and girls, shows many women don’t pursue math degrees due to lack of encouragement, the perception that they won’t be as successful in a math related job as a man, or because they feel it will not enable them to obtain a job later that will allow them to balance a family and career.
While the study shows these are still stereotypes affecting many women, the stereotypes are not as influential as they were 40 years ago.
The report shows in 1966, only 6.1 percent of women earning doctorates specialized in math or science, while in 2006, 29.6 percent of American women who earned doctorates specialized in math, and 34.4 percent earned doctorates in chemistry.
The report states that stereotypes can be removed with the influence of role models.
Sam Houston State University mathematics associate professor Rebecca Garcia said she agrees completely.
“I was definitely like every child,” said Garcia, “I had a childhood dream. I wanted to be a medical doctor.”
Garcia began pursuing that dream at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles as a chemistry major, but soon found herself having second thoughts about her degree plan.
“I had a mentor, my calculus teacher, he said why don’t you be a math major instead,” said Garcia, “that was the hook, the way out.”
Garcia said it was because she had a role model who encouraged her that led her to a career in mathematics.
Now she is overseeing a research project funded by the National Science Foundation called the Long Term Undergraduate Research Experience.
“She is a good role model and shows you can be a good researcher and a woman,” said Ken Smith, professor of mathematics.
Garcia has three undergraduate students working with her on the final phase of the project. Two are women.
“Sam Houston has more women than men in undergraduate studies,” said Ken Smith.
When it comes to women and undergraduate degrees in mathematics, numbers are trending nationally.
A study featured in a January 2010 article in the Psychological Bulletin reports women in the United States now earn 48 percent of bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and 30 percent of the doctorates.
At SHSU, the number of women getting their master’s degrees is increasing at close to the same rate.
“My graduate algebra class in 2008 had one woman; this year I have five women,” said Garcia.
“We have 25 students currently in the graduate program; 10 are women,” said Mark Klespis, mathematics department chair.
“We are seeing more and more women applying to the graduate program.”
Klespis said only one of the 10 is in the Master of Arts program, typically pursued by women high school teachers. The rest are seeking a master’s degree in mathematics for other reasons.
Klespis also credits women role models for encouraging other women to pursue mathematics.
“I came here 15 years ago, and there were no female faculty members,” said Klespis. “We have 28 faculty members now; six are female. That’s a little unusual.”
Women in math may still be considered somewhat “unusual” in 2010, but the United States Department of Labor predicts that will change in the next decade.
By 2018, the fastest-growing occupations in the United States will require a person to have a math or science degree, it predicts.
That statistic alone may help encourage women to continue pursuing their plans for a career in mathematics.
Rebecca Garcia said she will continue to do her part.
“That is my obligation,” Garcia said. “I feel one of the job descriptions as a professor is to open as many doors for my students that were opened for me.”