Saturday, 18 May 2013

A Word about Math

I very much enjoyed reading responses to yesterday's question, "What if you were kidnapped by space aliens and they zapped you with alien technology so that all your XX chromosomes warped into XY chromosomes and when you regained consciousness, you were really and truly a man?"

The point of the exercise was to ponder what it might be like to be a man. Occasionally I ask men what it is like to be men and they usually say they have nothing to compare it with, so they don't know what to tell me. Possibly this is to avoid saying, "It's like being intellectually shackled to a frustrated sex maniac," which is not something the men I know would like to say to inquisitive NCGs.

Anyway, in this thought exercise some of us changed our professions, not just because our imaginary new muscles gave us new opportunities, but because we figured our new male brains would give us other interests. And this is why conscience directs me to say something about women and math. 

I grew up in Canada, and I believed that girls were bad at math. I believed that girls were bad at math because in Canada and the USA, it was believed that girls were bad at math. I can't quite remember when I hit the rocky patch in elementary school that convinced me that I was bad at math, but I remained firmly convinced. My struggles with math blighted my teenage life. So much time wasted in worry, self-hated and procrastination. I wish with all my heart I had spent the summer between Grade 8 and Grade 9, or between Grade 9 and Grade 10, learning that I could learn to do math. 

It was not until I went to Rome two years ago and met an Eastern European reader who is also a mathematician that I heard that most women in Eastern Europe can do math. I already suspected that education was different for women in Eastern Europe, at least in Communist times, because years before I had met a young Slovak nun who had been trained as an electrician. She did not at all think it odd that she had been trained as an electrician. However, I did not realize that there was such a gap between North American women and Eastern European women when it came to math and science. And it shocked my Eastern European mathematician reader to the core that women in the USA were, in general, so deficient in math and science skills, and had so much less of an interest in math and science than women in her country.* 

It seems that the gender gap between English-speaking women and English-speaking men when it comes to math is about culture, not brains.  It may be true that men are more likely to be TOP mathematicians ( I just checked the Faculty list for Warsaw University and  only 77 of the 330 people on the Mathematics, Informatics and Mechanics are women.) However, this in itself is no reason to despair that more American, Canadian and British women could become skilled in math. 

It's amazing how our assumptions about gender and intellectual ability can hold us back. I was struck by the remark of a young Polish man who glumly decided that women were better at languages. He was almost entirely fluent in English. 

In a climate where it amounts to a thought-crime to say that men and women are fundamentally and radically different, I believe that men and women are fundamentally and radically different, and that our differences are complementary. However, I do not think that these differences involve intellectual ability, at least not on anything but the elite level. (This is to say that I believe that something besides culture has resulted in more top male mathematicians than top female mathematicians.)   

One day I hope to prove this to myself, too, by going to night school and learning all the math I so frustratingly could not learn in high school. Meanwhile, I do wish there was the same panic around girls not being able to excel in math as there is about boys not being able to read. When boys can't read, nobody says, "Oh well. Boys can always just become hunters, trappers or fishermen."

*True story: I was translating a Communist-era Polish comic song about mathematicians, and I got entirely bogged down in a line where one of the mathematicians clumsily kisses another mathematician. I was completely confused that there was such a explicitly homosexual element to this Communist-era song. A Polish girl (a biochemist) had to explain to me that the other mathematician was a woman. Isn't that pathetic? I was so ashamed.  


Sophie Miriam said...

My mother double-majored in math and physics and has a master's in engineering. My father majored in theology and has two PhDs, one in theology and one in philosophy. My grandmother was a chemistry teacher. My grandfather is an English professor. My aunt is a carpenter/woodworker.

Growing up, I assumed that numbers and science were things girls were good at and words were things boys were good at. I was always good at math (until I met calculus...*ahem*) but I never enjoyed it terribly much, and I always felt like I was somehow betraying my own sex by not being interested in math.

I had absolutely no idea that the wider culture had the opposite opinion. Apparently, when I was told the profession of St. Joseph, I said, "Boys can be carpenters?!" I still can't make math fit in my head with men. (I mean, I don't try, but I know that other people think this and I find it baffling.)

And of course, I wound up in a male-dominated field anyway!

Jam said...

When boys can't read (the way i cant do math) people like certain of my relatives shrug and say, "he doesn't like books! But he'll be a great linebacker. Get him some new play station games for Christmas." This might be a class and/or socioeconomic thing.

sciencegirl said...

My mom was the parent who was good at math and building things (she always did the taxes etc), and I always thought boys were in general rather bad at math and science (and every subject heehee). I wasn't that great at quick arithmetic, but once I got into algebra, it was just like a fun puzzle. My girl BFF and I were tops in our rural school.

I think it's scary how the culture in America (and Canada ? sad) is so hostile to math, and treats math ability as a source of embarrassment and shame. I know women who ask me to check their perfect math every time they do a simple equation just because they are scared to be wrong.

Seraphic said...

Re: playstation. Oh, dear!

I admit this post probably smacks of preaching to the choir, as I have so many readers in math and science fields! I even have a reader at NASA. But I suspect I have an increasing number of younger readers, so I thought I had better say something about math.

Kate P said...

I don't know if this controversy was only in the USA or not, but several years ago there was a huge dust-up over a talking Barbie doll who was supposed to be saying friendly-type things--but one of them was, "Math is hard." Huge uproar!

It never occurred to me that it was unusual for math to be difficult for women, probably because my family thinks engineering runs in our family, but also because I went to an all-girls high school. So doing math was no big deal. (That said, I get frustrated too easily with calculus!) I have a science-based degree--a Master of Library and Information Science.

Seraphic, I had to laugh when you talked about the difficulty of translating the song. It made me think of a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip where Calvin said to his poor beleaguered teacher:
"Why aren't you teaching us the genders of nouns? Is 'desk' masculine"? Is 'chair' feminine? Foreign kids know, but we don't No wonder we can't compete in a global market. I demand sex education!"

Laika said...

I'm Canadian too, and I know how it is deeply ingrained here. My brother never tires of loudly ranting to me about how boys are better at math and science (and everything else too really) despite the fact that I am the one entering a STEM field, and he has no interest in such things and is highly interested in languages and philosophy. Sigh...

Seraphic said...

I went to an all-girls school, but that turned out not to be the way around ingrained sexism. The woman paid to be my math teacher told us, among other things, that her husband's (male) students were much better math students than we were, and her husband was a much better teacher than she was.

I once spoke about this teacher to a woman who had been at my school about ten years before me, and she was furious that her old teacher had still been there, still messing with the heads of get another ten years' worth of girls.