Karen Polenske is Professor of Regional Political Economy and Planning at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Some of us have wondered why more U.S. and European women are not attracted to the sciences and engineering as well as economics, regional science, and other disciplines that require mathematics. Encouragement to do mathematics (and statistics) is needed early from parents and teachers while girls are still in grade school and high school. Often young girls are discouraged from taking it beyond the required subjects, although the use of the computer may be changing this. I never gave much thought as to taking or not taking mathematics when I was in high school. I enjoyed maths and also enjoyed teaching other students about how to do the problem sets.
In high school, when I took geometry, I was the only girl out of about 200 in my class who was still attending the mathematics class. I was planning to be an extension agent, and my teachers could not understand why I wanted to learn maths. In graduate school, I was part of the ﬁrst class in the economics department at Harvard University where we had the option of taking either a language or a mathematics examination. Until then, graduates were only required to pass the language examination. I took the maths option.
Look at the early issues (before 1960) of The American Economic Review, and you will ﬁnd that articles were mostly devoid of equations, and authors used tables only to review historical or current data descriptively. Times have changed. Mathematics is now a regular part of most economic and regional science articles. Also many women attend the regional science meetings. Most do not realize how few women attended the early meetings. I remember one meeting in Chicago many years ago where Anna Nagurney and I were the only women in a group of over 100 men. Now, many women attend the annual meetings, and we have a get-together each year at the meetings, so that we become much better acquainted with one another (see Maureen Kilkenny’s article below).
I deﬁnitely think that having more women attend the meetings, becoming Fellows of the Regional Science Association International, and playing an active role in the Regional Science Association is a move in the right direction. I am not as sanguine about the current emphasis on mathematics and econometrics, partly because I see too many articles where the authors do not understand the underlying economic concerns – their focus on the econometrics often obscures the importance of the underlying issues.
(Published on RSAI Newsletter 2009 October)