A table of equals. Photographer: John Macdougall/AFP/Getty Images
A table of equals. Photographer: John Macdougall/AFP/Getty Images

It's telling that the first-ever female winner of the Fields Medal -- the mathematics equivalent of a Nobel Prize -- graduated from college in Iran, a country with one of the world's least women-friendly cultures and legal frameworks. It takes the toughest, or the most oblivious to their surroundings, to create a path that others can follow.

Despite decades of progress, women are still woefully under-represented in the "STEM" fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. In 2011, the last year for which official data are available, women made up 48 percent of the total U.S. workforce and just 26 percent of all STEM workers. The female share of tech workers at Apple is just 20 percent.

That meager share of tech jobs is the bottom of a funnel. Girls enter as boys' equals. An exhaustive 2008 U.S. study of 7 million students found no discernible gender gap in math performance at the elementary-to-high school level. A separate 2010 study found that even at the genius level, where previous studies had found a gender difference, the gap has been narrowing: The ratio of boys to girls with SAT math scores above 700 stood at 3.8 to 1 in 2006 to 2010, down from 13.5 to 1 in the 1980s. These days, girls take high school courses in math and science as often as boys despite the fact that the "math is for boys" stereotype remains prevalent among elementary school kids, as one recent study found.

At college level, women begin to get cut off and discouraged. Even though they perform just as well as men, women earn only a quarter of physics degrees and 27 percent of mathematics doctorates in the U.S. Some recent research indicates that they quit because they get lower grades than they're accustomed to. Other studies have pointed to the same old gender stereotypes and discouragement by teachers, who praise their male students more and give them more attention. There's also the not-always-attractive competitive nature of the tech-related fields.

The funnel, however, might be widening. Late last year, the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics released a report on "STEM attrition," showing that 48 percent of bachelor's degree students who entered STEM fields between 2003 and 2009 changed their majors or dropped out by spring 2009. The surprising finding was that the attrition rate was higher among men -- 49.2 percent compared to 46.6 percent for women.

Stereotypes die hard, and male cultures in places like the Silicon Valley may be no more receptive toward women than that of Iran, but the tide is clearly turning. "The social barriers for girls who are interested in mathematical sciences might not be lower now than they were when I grew up," Maryam Mirzakhani, the Stanford University professor who has just won the Fields Medal, wrote last year. "However, there has been a lot of progress over the years, and I am sure this trend will continue."

Women, in other words, will be winning more medals.

To contact the writer of this article: Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net.