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  • Print publication year: 2004
  • Online publication date: June 2012

1 - Research on the Women and Mathematics Issue: A Personal Case History

Summary

The history of research on the issue of women's participation in mathematics provides an interesting case study of the psychology and sociology of research in the social sciences. Although there had been prior research on the topic, two key works of the early and mid-1970s sparked a major burst of interest. They were Lucy Sell's unpublished study of women at the University of California at Berkeley (Sells, 1973), “High school mathematics as the critical factor in the job market,” and Sheila Tobias's publications on math anxiety (Tobias, 1976, 1978), the first of them an article in MS magazine in 1976. The study of mathematics, or the failure to study mathematics, came to be seen as a critical barrier to women's participation in a wide range of high-status and remunerative occupations during those surging years of the women's movement. Based on a random sample of freshmen entering Berkeley in 1972, Sells (1973) reported that only 8% of the females had taken four years of high school mathematics, whereas 57% of the men had. This report received a lot of attention.

The U.S. National Institute of Education (NIE) responded with plans for a special grants competition addressing this perceived problem. Background preparations for this competition were exceptionally thorough. Three review papers were commissioned to examine existing research results and opinions concerning major classes of possible influences on women's choices to study mathematics or to select occupations requiring mathematical competence: Fennema (1977) reviewed cognitive, affective, and educational influences; Fox (1977) reviewed social influences; and Sherman (1977) reviewed possible biological explanations.

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