One factor inhibiting girls is self-confidence, says University of Wisconsin psychologist Janet Hyde, PhD. “Even when girls are getting better grades, boys are more confident in math. It’s important to understand what might be sapping girls’ confidence.”Sophie Germain (1776-1831)

But what if girls’ confidence and their interest in becoming “fluent” are influenced by math anxiety among their predominantly female elementary school teachers? A 2010 study (PNAS, Vol. 107, No. 5) by University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock, PhD, suggests that this may well be the case for some girls. She and her colleagues started with these facts: More than 90 percent of elementary school teachers are women, and studies show that elementary education majors have higher levels of math anxiety than any other major. The researchers then assessed math anxiety in 17 female first- and second-grade teachers, as well as math achievement and gender stereotypes among 52 boys and 65 girls from their classes. At the start of the school year, the researchers found no link between teacher anxiety and student math achievement. But by school year’s end, the more anxious teachers were about math, the more likely girls, but not boys, agreed with the statement, “Boys are good at math and girls are good at reading.” In addition, girls who accepted this stereotype performed significantly worse on math achievement measures than girls who did not and boys overall.

Germain taught herself mathematics by using books from her father's library. In the book Women in Mathematics, Lynn Osen says that Germain "spent the years of the Reign of Terror studying differential calculus" while confined to her home. During a lifetime of research in mathematics, she made important contributions to the areas of number theory and mathematical physics, including being one of the first mathematicians, male or female, to provide a partial solution to Fermat's Last Theorem for a large class of exponents. Sophie Germain's Theorem was still being used 150 years after her death in investigations of Fermat's famous conjecture. A prime number n when 2n+1 is also prime is now called a Sophie Germain prime. There are applications for Sophie Germain primes in number theory and even in cryptology for digital signatures based on the Diffie-Hellman key agreement algorithm, so finding large Sophie Germain primes is actually a worthwhile pursuit. They even make an appearance in the Tony award-winning play Proof. The largest known Sophie Germain prime, as of August 2001, is 109,433,307 x 266452 -1, a number with 20,013 digits. Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718-1799)

Agnesi was exposed to mathematics from a very early age. By the age of 20 she had started work on her most important contribution to mathematics, the book…