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Why Does the Putnam Math Competition Give a Separate Prize to Women?

Dec 1, 2014

Women are still far less represented than men in fields requiring strong math skills.

While the rest of us struggle to balance our post-Black Friday checkbooks, America’s top college mathematicians are preparing for one of the most advanced and prestigious math events in the world. Yes, it’s time again for the annual William Lowell Putnam Competition.

Open to undergraduates across the country and in Canada, the competition’s difficulty is such that the average score for competitors is often zero or one out of a possible 120. Its problems often require proficiency in advanced mathematical doctrines such as set, group, and game theory and have often served as a catalyst for new and innovative ideas in the field.

While the word "competition" often conjures up images of athleticism and feats of physicality, this competition requires only an uncommon intellect. So why, then, if size and strength are of no advantage, does the Putnam Competition concede a separate prize to the best female performer?

Putnam Competition medals.
Credit MIT
The separate prize legitimizes an attitude of expecting less from women than from men.

The Elizabeth Lowell Putnam Prize, named after William Lowell Putnam's wife, was first awarded in 1992. It is given each year to the competition's top female performer regardless of how far back in the overall rankings she places. Today, we may shudder at the idea that a modern society, especially at the collegiate level, would differentiate men and women by their intellectual abilities.

Never was this more evident than on January 14, 2005, when in a speech, Harvard University President Larry Summers implied that the underrepresentation of female scientists at top universities was in part due to natural differences between men and women.

The reactions to his statement were swift and severe. Women’s groups condemned the idea and Summers soon after received a vote of no-confidence by Harvard’s faculty. Yet it would seem that the outrage over such sentiment is highly selective. For while Summer’s ultimately had to resign, the Elizabeth Lowell prize lumbers on, like some knuckle dragging Neanderthal from a bygone age. And what may be even more surprising: some women support it.

Xiao Wu.
Credit Chion Wolf / WNPR

"Last year, there were only two girls in the room taking the test. In most of my math classes, I might be one of the only girls."
Xiao Wu

Xiao Wu, the Elizabeth Lowell's most recent winner and a pre-med student at Yale University, said last month on WNPR’s The Colin McEnroe Show, "This prize is to encourage more female participants.... I remember last year, there were only two girls in the room taking the test. In most of my math classes, I might be one of the only girls."

Statistics prove Wu's point. Women are still far less represented than men in fields requiring strong math skills.

According to The New York Times, nationally, women now earn close to 60 percent of bachelor's degrees overall, but only 20 percent of the degrees in computer science, 20 percent of those in physics, and 18 percent of those in engineering.” Additionally, women have seen no employment growth in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs since 2000.

Credit Steve Jurvetson / Creative Commons

Despite these numbers, it's easy to see why some view the Elizabeth Lowell Putnam prize as a well-intentioned but detrimental incentive for women in mathematics. Its very existence suggests treating women differently, and this in a field which already struggles to embody gender equality. It legitimizes an attitude of expecting less from women than from men.

This is arguably the very same attitude which holds women back in the first place: society unwittingly steers female students into careers like health care, education, and law, and encourages male students to pursue STEM careers -- all because of archaic, gender-based expectations.

So, where's the balance? How do we entice more women to pursue math and science, while not simultaneously furthering the very stereotype which holds them back?

Peggy Whitson, the first female commander of the International Space Station, takes a space walk in 2008.
Credit NASA
How do we entice more women to pursue math and science?

The longer we wait to answer this question, the more difficult it becomes, and the more entrenched the stereotypes. "It’s a vicious cycle," said Jocelyn Goldfein, director of engineering at Facebook. "The reason there aren’t more women computer scientists is because there aren’t more women computer scientists."

However, meaningful efforts to change this trend are underway. Organizations such as TechWomen are working together with initiatives like Girls Who Code, and Million Women Mentors, to advance math- and science-based opportunities to women around the world -- and this is no easy task.

In a sense, that work is like trying to un-ring a bell that's been ringing since the beginning. As Karen D. Purcell, author of Unlocking Your Brilliance, said, “The bias is so entrenched in our culture that we often don't even recognize it. While the situation has changed substantially in the past 20 or 30 years, there is still a sense that women aren't as good at math.”

The question remains: how should we ultimately view the Elizabeth Lowell Putnam prize? Conveniently, the means to an answer may be concealed in the very mathematical doctrine at the competition’s core.

According to game theory, a zero-sum game is a mathematical representation of a situation in which the participant's gain (or loss) is exactly balanced by the losses (or gains) they incur by participating in the first place.

That seems just about right: the Elizabeth Lowell Prize’s perpetuation of a harmful bias may be perfectly balanced by the incentive it provides to end that bias, once and for all.

A satisfying proof? Perhaps not. But you can't argue with math.

Josh Nilaya is a producer at WNPR.