Are men better at math?

Inside the Santa Monica College Letters and Science building, you will find a fairly typical classroom scene, with students in rows of desks, a teacher standing toward the front, and a blackboard covered in diagrams. Greek letters and foreign symbols are interspersed throughout, but to the students in classroom 104, the diagrams are not inscrutable; they are multivariable calculus. In the back row, Stephanie Faulkinberg, with a blond ponytail and dark glasses, would shift her attention between the teacher and her notebook. Faulkinberg plans to pursue a career in math, obtain a master’s in mathematics, and then either teach math or go into research.

“I always liked math, and I was always good at it,” Faulkinberg said.

Faulkinberg was taking both multivariable calculus and linear algebra in the fall of 2011. In her linear algebra class, she was one of only two female students, and as a female mathematician, she has become used to being in the minority.

One of the more robust gender differences, and one that has been reported by hundreds of studies, is male superiority in spatial abilities. Spatial ability refers to thinking of three-dimensional spaces abstractly, such as judging distances or mentally rotating Tetris pieces.

These abilities are important for what are known as the STEM fields, which include science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Women are characteristically underrepresented in these disciplines in higher education and in the workforce, accounting for only 24 percent in science and math careers, according to the Economics and Statistics Administration.

For Faulkinberg, being in the minority did not affect her career choice, but it did lead her to question why there are not more women in math.

“It makes me wonder if I can do it as well as [men] can,” Faulkinberg said. “I mean, why aren’t there more people like me?”

The disparity has been documented, but the question of why remains. Is it biology that differentiates men from women in math and science? Or is it attitudes and socialization that designate where men and women will excel?

Dr. Moshe Hoffman, a post-doctorate student at University of California, San Diego, traveled to the villages of two tribes in northeast India to find out.

In between rice fields and hills covered in banana trees live two Indian tribes, the Khasi and the Karbi. Both are rice farmers, and almost 90 percent of their caloric intake consists of rice. They share the same geography and are of almost identical ethnic origin, but their cultures could not be more different.

The Khasi are one of only two societies that anthropologists categorize as matrilineal. Only women can own land, and inheritance passes to the youngest daughter. Women and men are equally educated, and women are treated with respect. Their Karbi neighbors are a typical patrilineal society characterized by male dominance. Inheritance passes to the eldest son, and all positions of power are held by men. Women receive less education and marry young.

The Khasi and Karbi are what scientists call a natural experiment, where nature provides an almost perfect control group. The two tribes are similar in everything except for culture.

To test the spatial aptitude of members of both tribes, Hoffman tracked the time it took them to complete a four-piece puzzle. They each received four squares that, when placed together, formed the face of a horse. This task was novel for the villagers, as they had never seen a puzzle. The volunteers were 18 and older, and the study considered education level, a factor that turned out to be relevant.

The results indicated that in the Karbi, the traditional patriarchal society, men completed the puzzle 1.5 times faster than women, while in the Khasi, where there is gender equality, women performed as well as men. Hoffman described this result as “suprising, even shocking.” He had not expected the gender gap to disappear so dramatically, indicating that culture plays a considerable role in determining spatial intelligence.

One young Karbi woman told Hoffman that the highest education she received was the equivalent of sixth grade. She was in her early 20s, and married with children. Hoffman asked her why, and she replied that she would not understand what was taught, and wondered what use she would have for higher education.

Dr. Moya Mazorow, a math professor at SMC, was not surprised by the results of Hoffman’s study. She received a doctorate in mathematics from Caltech in 1991.

“It’s a very sexist field,” Mazorow said. “You have to be very strong to get through the program.”

Many of the women who began the program with Mazorow dropped out along the way, especially when family and children began to take priority. Mazorow was one of the first women in the math program at Caltech to stay after a pregnancy.

“They really wanted a woman to finish,” Mazorow said, referring to the female secretaries who worked at the school, who would sometimes watch her child while she studied or worked. “They wanted a role model.”

Mazorow had very strong female role models, and she attributes much of her success to them. The women in her life told her that she was smart enough to succeed in math. But many girls receive the exact opposite message, and from a young age accept the idea that math is too hard for them. That message, more than anything, holds women back, according to Mazorow.

“Anyone can do algebra,” Mazorow said.