Deeming mathematics "uncool" in the social context of middle and high schools in the US is hurting the country as a new study found that a majority of young mathematicians working here were born in a foreign country.
"It is deemed uncool within the social context of US middle and high schools to do mathematics for fun; doing so can lead to social ostracism. Consequently, gifted girls, even more so than boys, usually camouflage their mathematical talent to fit in well with their peers," the researchers commented.
The Americans' attitude of making fun of girls who are good at math is robbing the country of some of its best talent, the study found, adding that girls can be just as talented as boys at mathematics but some are driven from the field because they are teased, ostracised or simply neglected.
"The US culture that is discouraging girls is also discouraging boys," Janet Mertz, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who led the study, said in a statement Friday.
"The situation is becoming urgent. The data show that a majority of the top young mathematicians in this country were not born here," she said.
Writing in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society, Mertz and colleagues analysed data from international math competitions going back to 1974 as well as surveys of US students.
They also challenged the widespread belief that females lack exceptional math aptitude.
Co-researcher Titu Andreescu of the University of Texas, Dallas, said: "Innate math aptitude is probably fairly evenly distributed throughout the world, regardless of race or gender. The huge differences observed in achievement levels are most likely due to socio-cultural attributes specific to each country."
The study also found that in the five top US research university mathematics departments, only 20 percent of women faculty members were born in the US.
"We are wasting this valuable resource," Mertz said. "Girls can excel in math at the very highest level. There are some truly phenomenal women mathematicians out there."
The study found that in elementary school, girls do as well or better in math tests than boys. The scores begin to lag in the middle school years and the gap widens greatly between girls and boys in high school.
Many of the women who become math or engineering professionals come from other countries, notably in eastern Europe and Asia, where mathematics is promoted more, the study found.
"Just as there is concern about the US relying on foreign countries for our oil and manufactured goods, we should also be concerned about relying on others to fill our needs for mathematicians, engineers, and scientists," Joseph Gallian of the University of Minnesota and current president of the Mathematical Association of America, said.