Janet Yellen, Mary Jo White, and Christine Lagarde Shatter Gender Stereotypes

With the nomination of Janet Yellen to head the Federal Reserve, Mary Jo White chairing the SEC, Christine Lagarde as the managing director for the International Monetary Fund and Angela Merkel as the "dominant Eurozone leader," according to Schederazade Rehman of U.S. News & World Report, women are taking over the economics sector in an economically crucial time.

But with great power comes great scrutiny. Women in positions such as these — positions that are traditionally and historically held my men — are more often than not evaluated more harshly, and seeing as these women are heads of the most important financial and economic programs in the country, their skills will be criticized mostly likely on a daily basis. 

Women taking over positions such as these brings into question their mathematical and financial skills, as well as their decision-making. A longstanding question in society has been: Are men better than women at math?

As recent research shows, whether girls and women are better or worse at math than boys and men has little to do with their genetic makeup and more to do with the gender equality of their surroundings. Jonathan Kane and Janet Mertz, professors at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater published their research findings in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society, which found there is little biological evidence supporting the math gender gap. They wrote, "Boys and girls may be born similar in their innate intellectual potential but end up displaying differences due to a variety of sociocultural factors present in their environment."

In fact, the math gender gap may be shrinking. Kane and Mertz also found, "Girls have now reached parity with boys in mean mathematics performance in the United States, even in high school, where a significant gap in mean performance existed in the 1970s."

Natalie Angier and Kenneth Chang wrote for the New York Times that the way we access boys' and girls' math abilities is political and may not be an accurate assessment. In 2003, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development administered an international standardized test to 250,000 15-year-olds in 41 countries. On that test, "Boys did moderately better on the math portion in just over half the nations, [however], for nearly all the other countries, there were no significant sex differences," according to Angier and Chang's findings.

As Lisa Wade, a cultural critic and sociologist based in Los Angeles, California, explained for The Sociology Pages, math is a skill and whether or not you are any good at it is determined by your willingness to practice it, not what gender you are.

It is encouraging that the percentage of PhDs in the mathematical sciences awarded to female U.S. citizens increased from 6% in the 1960s to 30% in the past decade, according to Kane and Mertz's research. However, women still account for only 34% of PhD students in economics, according to a recent study by the Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession.

While the percentage of women economists still lags behind the amount of men in this country, that does not diminish the importance of women's voices being present in economic conversations. Ann Mari May, Mary G. McGarvey and Robert Whaples published the results of their survey on this topic earlier this year in the journal, Contemporary Economic Policy. Their research suggests, "It is crucial to include both women and men economists at the table when forming policy to ensure that a variety of professional perspectives are included in the discussion." Because men and women's view on matters such as labor standards and health insurance varies, it is truly important for those different opinions to be heard and considered for the betterment of our society.

So while Yellen and White's decisions may be under a very critical microscope, at least women are finally in the positions to be making those decisions.

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Melanie Breault

Melanie Breault just returned from teaching English in Seoul, South Korea. She now works for a women's nonprofit in Downtown NYC. She earned her bachelor's degree in economic and political journalism from Ithaca College in upstate New York. She likes to tackle issues facing marginalized workers and struggling students in her free time.

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