I recently came across University of Wisconsin professor Janet Hyde’s research into the gender differences in math performance, which I found fascinating especially since my wife’s desire is for our two-year-old twin girls to become software engineers. I decided to contact Hyde and follow up with questions that I thought were relevant to the greater community of startup entrepreneurs and engineers. I appreciated her efforts and insights into a quiet issue that I believe has a huge effect on our nation’s innovation engine and economic growth.

Moon: How did you first become interested in exploring the stereotype that girls had less mathematical abilities than boys?

Bernard Moon is co-founder & CEO of XS Groupe, an online private sale startup. He blogs at Silicon Moon.

Hyde: Back in the 1980s, I was having lunch at a convention with a woman who is a faculty member at UC Berkeley. We started talking about the stereotype and then we confessed our SAT-Math scores to each other. One of us had an 800 and the other a 780! We instantly began to question the stereotype and think that we should collect good data to test it.

Moon: With your studies on gender similarities in math performance, has there been an increased awareness among parents and teachers on the stereotype that girls have lesser mathematical ability? How have you or others been getting the word out?

Hyde: We’ve been doing our best to get the word out. The findings in the 2008 Science article received massive media coverage, including newspapers, online sources, and TV. Journalists in other nations covered it as well. We received many emails from parents and teachers saying how much they appreciated the research. Nonetheless, stereotypes are resistant to change, for reasons documented by social psychologists. Even in the most recent waves of data collection, parents still estimate higher math ability for their sons than their daughters. We have to keep plugging away at getting the science out to the public.

Moon: How did we get here? This stereotype that women were lesser in mathematical skills? For someone living in Silicon Valley at the heart of innovation in the U.S., it’s disappointing to learn that decades of talented engineers were never developed due to bad stereotypes and false perceptions of what women can do.

Hyde: You are right that we can’t afford to lose talent from the U.S. pool in STEM innovation, and these stereotypes do discourage girls and women from entering these fields. The stereotype that women are less intelligent than men dates at least from the 1800s, when articles were written on the “intellectual feebleness of women.”

Moon: Your research didn’t explain the existing gap between men and women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) careers. You did hypothesize how beginning in high school there is a gap of interest in complex problem solving, which could explain the gap between men and women in areas such as physics and engineering. What are your thoughts on this? Misguided teachers and academic advisers? Difference of academic interests between boys and girls?

Hyde: You are right that my research didn’t explain the gap, but it did rule out one explanation that is often proposed, that women have insufficient math ability for STEM careers. I can’t begin to type out a simple explanation for the gap because it involves many factors and the gap itself is complex. For example, women are getting PhDs in biology at the same rate as men today, so it isn’t a gender gap in all of science. The big gaps are in physics and engineering.

Moon: Are there any public policy recommendations that you or others discussed based on your research?

Hyde: We should require 4 years of math and 4 years of science for everyone graduating from high school. We need stronger mathematics teachers at all levels, from elementary school to high school, although how to accomplish that is controversial.

Moon: Have you continued look at different areas related to this topic? What is your current research project?

Hyde: Currently I’m working on an intervention to improve parents’ and students’ understanding of the usefulness of math and science, with the goal of encouraging the students to take extra elective math and science courses in high school.

Moon: Thank you, Professor Hyde, for your time!

Photo by EdwinP