Tag Archives: rant

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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Why do we (still) need to know more about female scientists?

Seemingly progressive posts such as “Eight women scientists that you need to know about” make my blood boil with anger. True, I had only heard about four of these eight scientists. You should read the article, it’s short, informative, and thought-provoking, and has inspiring historic portraits of the scientists at work – pictures which would have made at least one male relative of theirs mutter “she should be in the kitchen, not in the lab”. Their life histories made for an enjoyable and useful read on a Monday morning (and yes, that counted as research reading, aren’t I lucky). But this article was also a grim reminder of the fact that feminism has frozen in the first mile of a double marathon towards gender equality.

Why do we need to know more about female scientists?

Because of articles like this – how about some more female scientists? Are there really only eight?! And how about trying to read an article about the 800 or more male scientists who have made awesome discoveries that we also need to know about – I’m sure there’s lots that we don’t know about them? But no, that would not make for a nice news item or facebook trending post take because it would take longer than a Monday morning coffee break to read.

Because women who succeed in doing what they like and are good at (scientists or others) are still newsworthy. WTF?! Surely, not the ones who excel in anything related to the home, food or childrearing, that’s not news – women are just naturally good at it, haha.

Because becoming a scientist is a hard thing, and being a woman unfortunately continues to create more invisible barriers to a successful practicing of science than being a man does.

Because, if you take ten minutes to read their bios on Wikipedia, you will notice that most of them were at some point excluded, denied recognition, or discriminated against on the basis of being women. Nothing to do with their research, that was OK – in fact, it was good enough for others to gain credit for it sometimes. WTF?!

Because yesterday, when I heard that some friends have recently had a baby, I instinctively asked “girl or boy?” even though I can’t think of even one reason why the answer to that question should make a difference. But of course it will. (Un)helpful statistics, stereotypes, expectations, images and key words describing the likely life course, appearance, occupation, interests and possible futures open to persons of the male and female genders spring to mind immediately upon determining the sex of a newborn. Will people still care about that when that baby is an adult and wants, for example, to work as an astronomer? I hope not, but I’m afraid that they will.

Oh, just one thing <clambers onto soap box again>. Wikipedia has a special entry on “Female scientists before the 21st Century”. It seems to suggest that it has become easy enough – or at least relatively easier – for women to be scientists in the past couple of decades than it was previously. And it has. But it has not become equally easy to men, and it has not become sufficiently easy. 

And then, intersectionality. Combine class, race, wealth, disability, sexual orientation, and a bunch of other things that also mess up with our futures, making sure that the most talented, hard-working or brilliant people don’t  have a better chance.

We’re still far from a time when a person’s gender will not be the first thing we notice about them. Yes, there are numerous exceptions – but the point is, we have gone far in promoting exceptions, but we have not yet managed to create a world that supports a regularity, a world in which the particular set of sexual organs, secondary sexual characteristics and learned behaviours have no bearing to how well someone does their job.

Now, off that soapbox and back to my research desk before I evaporate in a puff of angry steam.

8-female-scientists

P.S. Maria Mitchell – first American professional astronomer who was female. And another reason why Quakers are cool. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maria_Mitchell

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