Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Is Your Calculator Pink and Sparkly?

When I was in fourth grade, my class was split into two groups. On some days, the Red Group would do math when Blue Group had Computer class, and then the groups would switch. Even though it was never explicitly stated, we all knew what this was about (aside from the fact that our school only had a handful of computers). Kids in the Blue Group needed more help with math so, with all of them together, our teacher could focus more on their needs. Kids in the Red Group got the basics pretty quickly, so they could practice more advanced math. (Long division? OMG!)

You might not guess it now, but I was in the Red Group. In elementary school, math came pretty easily. (It all ended in Calc, when I argued with my teacher about why I didn't trust the theorems and equations he gave us.) And out of our basically 5o/50 boy/girl class, 90% of the Red Group was female.

So what happens to girls and math? Why has no woman ever won the Fields Medal? In 2005, Harvard President Larry Summers went so far as to say that "biological differences could explain why fewer women became professors of mathematics."

Apparently, Larry is wrong. A report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says that "gender inequality, not lack of innate ability or 'intrinsic aptitude', is the primary reason fewer females than males are identified as excelling in mathematics performance in most countries, including the United States." It's not about 'natural talent' as much as the opportunities available for girls, and the attitude that society has towards girls who exhibit a talent for science or math.

I can definitely see how that would be true. Female math/sciencey friends have mentioned how difficult to can be to be a woman in a traditionally male field. Guys may not take you seriously or think that you're just filling the girl quota. And I expect that attitude gets even worse in the workforce; not being taken seriously can lead to fewer promotions and major projects. That's not to say that all male mathemeticians feel that way, but in general it seems like a lot of pressure on female professionals.

Hopefully studies like this will help more women succeed in math and science, and then get more girls involved in these fields. Maybe math-girls could even go to Harvard and tell Larry to shut the hell up.

3 comments:

Tom said...

To be fair, I don't read books by women. Hope that helps.

annie said...

Only blogs, right?

renee said...

"Guys may not take you seriously or think that you're just filling the girl quota. And I expect that attitude gets even worse in the workforce; not being taken seriously can lead to fewer promotions and major projects. That's not to say that all male mathemeticians feel that way, but in general it seems like a lot of pressure on female professionals."

Anne, thank you.

And, for the record, my TI-89 has Hello Kitty stickers on it.