Girls, math, and bullshit

After 9 years in the UK, I’ve reconciled myself to the realisation that I will always remain a foreigner. When I’m stressed, like when speaking to my bank on the phone today, my spoken expression and listening comprehension skills in English go out of the window. If someone woke me up at night, I’d speak to them in Bulgarian (my native language), but if I were really fast asleep, it would be Russian (my mother’s tongue which I learnt first).  But what is especially hard for a social scientist is that I am unable to overcome some taken-for-granted ideas that I had before coming here, and get used to their opposites which should be obvious to me. This evening I’m reminded of one: women and maths. This stuff is doing my head in. Each time I read about it, I get a headache. You know that peculiar blackout feeling when you hear something that is either blatantly, in-your-face, unjust or untrue, or something whose premises are so flawed that it’s not even wrong. I get that each time I encounter the obvious, common knowledge that women and math don’t mix. I just found an article about Shirley Conran’s new project aiming to make maths attractive to girls by convincing them that it will help them manage their personal finances. The article had the awesome title “Math is a feminist issue”, and it linked to what must be a very interesting and useful new report on women and the fear of mathematics. I’m sure it’s a very useful report. I must read it for my research. But I am stuck with the pdf like a horse in front of a river. I can’t read it because just reading the chapter titles makes me wince:

“1 Why maths and maths ability for women matter 13

2 Why confidence about maths ability matters 19

3 How do we know that women fear maths? 25

4 Why is maths perceived to be innately male? 29

5 Being female 37

6 Women’s education in history and the place of maths within it 47

7 Attacking the Maths Myth that drives the Fear Factor”

Clearly, I must have grown up with a different Myth. I grew up with the conviction, supported by empirical observations, that girls are better at all subjects. I don’t know why. And because I never had a reason to question this belief at the time I was at school or university, now I’m finding it really hard to accept that things are so obviously not the case. I don’t even know if my belief was justified about Bulgaria in general, or about Bulgarian “elite” primary and secondary schools. I may not be. Maybe I grew up in a bubble (a bubble in which all but one of my maths teachers were women, like almost all my other teachers; and in which schoolkids who were good at maths were equally likely to be girls or boys, and those who weren’t were more likely to be boys).

But I like having grown up in a bubble. I like the fact that the obviousness of “girls don’t like math, girls are no good at math” pisses me off. The really painful thing is that with each new item of information on the “women and maths” subject, doubt and desperation trickle in. I fear the thought that, if I had heard of this at a younger age, this belief might have turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy, and would have made me worse at maths – and worse at believing in my own capabilities, talents and worth. I hate the thought that there are young people out there growing up right now who entertain the freaking insane belief that interest and talent in various parts of human culture may have anything to do with their genitals.

Even less rationally, reading stuff which generalises a whole gender into one box according to a negative criterion, such as lack of ability or fear, makes me uncontrollably angry. When you, as a woman, read something like this, you just can’t win. If you happen to be bad at maths or hate it, well, there, there, little darling, we said it first, women suck at math. If you happen to be good at maths or like it, then you are not a woman, you’re an honorary man. &%£$@£$&?{}$£% Rage is not a good companion to research. Imagine, my research isn’t even about gender, actually, it’s about all mathematicians regardless of their gender. Imagine how angry I’d be if I were actually studying gender.

Incidentally, most of the female professional mathematicians I have talked to say that they were never aware of a negative gender stereotype in relation to maths when they were little. When they did realise it (often upon arriving to university), it was not a pleasant realisation.Some say that they were aware, but consciously rebelled or ignored it.

Perhaps we ought to not just combat the stereotype, but also shield from it those young kids who are lucky to don’t know about it yet…at least until they are old enough to be brave and rebellious rather than conformist?

P.S. Upon rereading, this sounds like an unusually personal and non-rational research-related blogpost. Unprofessional pubic expressions of unpolished thoughts, tut-tut. But it will have not been in vain, if it helps me at least read that report which, I’m sure, has lots of interesting and depressing data…

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6 thoughts on “Girls, math, and bullshit

  1. risabuzatova says:

    The originator of this quote is disputed, but I think it’s fitting considering your post: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Personally, my father always assumed I could “do math” and so of course I could, whatever the statistics or statistical lies might have shown.

  2. […] This made me think of how important the physical landscape of science is. It also reminded me of my anger the other day when reading once again about gender stereotypes in science: these stereotypes which Marion’s […]

  3. Map Man says:

    Can you use topology and set theory to categorize the sexes?

    I came across an interesting dissertation that does just that; but is there any precedence for this, or can I write off such a study as humanities-scholar-gone-wacko?

    https://www.academia.edu/5984726/Sexuated_Topology_and_the_Suspension_of_Meaning_A_Non-Hermeneutical_Phenomenological_Approach_to_Textual_Analysis

    any response would be welcome

    • anelim says:

      Hi! Sorry for the slow response, I have been travelling too much the past weeks.

      I have a feeling it might be bullshit in Sokal’s sense, though I would need to read this carefully to find out (a) whether I can understand and (b) whether it makes any sense. With this kind of work, one never knows just from looking! I came to sociology of science from a more pragmatic standpoint and I don’t really know much about the postmodern turn. I find that while virtually all of that postmodern stuff is written very densely and impenetrably to the outsider (even to fellow social scientists), some of it does make sense, some is bullshit (e.g. using metaphors taken from other sciences without bothering to understand the originals!) and with a lot of it I simply can’t judge, or it would take me too long to find out and I give up…

      I have come across something called topology in social theory once. from what I remember, the term “topology” was used in a very different sense: it was derived from human geography and not from mathematics. (I remember thinking “why didn’t they call this topography, then?”)

    • anelim says:

      Not sure I can read this. Part of me says: bullshit. The other part says: if this subfield of science and technology studies (STS) wanted to communicate its knowledge to others, they would write better. I don’t have time, so I will wait until I come across more legible specimens. Until then, I stick to stuff I can understand and find interesting… Here: http://ethnographymatters.net/blog/2014/03/10/studying-up/ What do you think?

    • anelim says:

      What do you do? How did you come across this?

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