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Why does my math class have so few girls?

in Caps Not Crosby/Columns/Opinions by

Why does my math class have so few girls? Why did the engineering department here have only one female professor last year? These are the types of questions many girls in S.T.E.M. at Swat tend to ask ourselves. Issues of underrepresentation of women in S.T.E.M. fields don’t start at Swat. By the time students arrive here, they have already been influenced by these disciplines’ implicit and explicit biases. It is the presence of such biases, most of which begin to heighten during middle and high school, that is constantly deterring women from pursuing computational fields, and it is imperative that institutions begin to tackle these biases head on.

In high schools across the United States, boys are dominating the higher-level classes in fields of math and applied mathematics.  Approximately 2.1 million girls and only 1.75 million boys took A.P. exams in varying subjects in 2013; however, in A.P. exams in fields of math and applied mathematics, boys outnumbered girls by strikingly large margins. Despite the fact that girls take a significantly greater percentage of all A.P. exams, boys still take more exams in all S.T.E.M.-related fields. The fact that more boys are taking these exams indicates that boys outnumber girls by a large margin in A.P. classes — high school classes usually at the highest level in any given subject — concerning S.T.E.M.-related fields.

Taking these A.P. classes in a subject will naturally increase the likelihood that a student will major in that subject in college. While some math majors at Swat do start in Math 15, it is far easier to complete the major if they come in with A.P. credit, and a student will naturally gravitate towards subjects in which they feel they possess more confidence and ability.

One of the main reasons many of the speakers cited that is keeping women out of the profession are the implicit biases — negative mental attitudes towards a group that people hold at an unconscious level.  Teachers perpetuate these biases unconsciously while teaching, and they will often go unnoticed by all until they are brought to attention. A student’s subconscious will pick up things that they do not actually know they are internalizing.  

With both information and experience in mind, I have compiled a list of suggestions for improving the ways in which institutions treat women. All schools and universities should ensure that they have 50 percent female teachers in mathematics and fields such as physics and economics which require the application of mathematics. All standardized testing involving mathematics and fields of applied mathematics must not permit test-takers to bubble in their gender until after they have already taken the test.

All students should be told two statements at the beginning of their middle school careers. The first is that brains are as malleable as plastic, and anyone has the ability to learn anything regardless of their race, class, or gender. The second is that gender plays no role in the ability for a child to learn any subject, and that the stereotypes surrounding the idea that boys are naturally better at math are 100 percent false.  

For every famous male mathematician a teacher mentions in class, teachers must also mention a female mathematician. I have heard my math teachers for years go on and on about men such as Euler, Pythagoras, and Taylor.  I have never been in a math class where the teacher mentioned the name of a famous female mathematician. Though the discoveries of the men listed above may be more relevant to the lesson than the discoveries of Hypata or Maryam Mirzakhani — the first woman to win the Fields Medal — only mentioning male names sends the message to the subconscious of females that women are lacking something instrumental to the possession of a great mathematical mind.  Simply mentioning a brilliant female mathematician will help derail this implicit bias. Elementary, middle, and high schools should have posters up in their hallways and classrooms of brilliant women in mathematics as role models for students.

Teachers and school administrators in math and fields of applied mathematics must do the following: read literature on the implicit biases that work against girls in their fields.  They must be aware of these biases so as never to reproduce or ignite them. For example, a teacher should never make the statement, “girls think differently,” or “girls show their skills in different ways.”

A teacher or professor must never say the following statements to a girl studying math: “I do not understand why you are not getting this.” “You are not good at conceptual math.” “You just don’t have the intuition.” Math teachers must never attribute the success of one student to “natural ability” while attributing the success of another to “hard work,” as that distinction implicitly conveys a distinction between the two students even if they are performing at the same level.

Finally, I believe that it is critical for teachers and professors to emphasize that natural talent, whether or not male students have it inherently, is not necessary in order for a student to excel at mathematics.

Swat, for the most part, does a better job than my high school did at trying to defuse some of the already ingrained biases against women in S.T.E.M. fields. My Linear Algebra professor freshman year did an excellent job with this, emphasizing to the entire class from day one that just because people don’t look like you in this field doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pursue it. I am not arguing that female S.T.E.M. students need their hands held or to be told they can do it, I am simply advocating for the ability to work in a slightly less bias-ridden environment. As a Computer Science and English double major, I do not even know which field I would like to pursue after college.  I simply want the ability for girls to choose math to exist untainted by harmful societal perceptions, biases, and stereotypes.

With the changes proposed above, girls will not have to walk into a math class and feel inhibited by their gender, and I believe that every student deserves to walk into a math class without feeling like they are at a disadvantage before they even begin to solve problems.  Removing implicit biases, stereotype threat, and media influences that keep girls out of mathematics will result in more girls in the higher level math classes in high schools, and subsequently, more girls with the ability to realize their potential in mathematics.

When constantly bombarded with the ubiquitous and pernicious images conveying a lack of intelligence surrounding their gender, young girls are socialized to believe that they are inferior intellectually, and thus incapable of tackling the hard problems.  We are severely limiting ourselves and our society based on perceptions created by the media and stereotypes perpetrated implicitly by teachers and institutions.

The Need for Femininity in Physics

in Campus Journal/Columns/XX On Science by

Imagine finding these lines in a physics textbook:

“A woman is pushing a stroller with velocity V…
A woman is giving birth, having contractions at rate W…
A woman is scrubbing the kitchen floor with force F…”

This is a quote from the show “Truth Values: One Girl’s Romp Through MIT’s Male Math Maze.” “Truth Values” is a one-woman show that I saw last week at the Annenberg Center for Performing Arts at UPenn. Gioia de Cari, the show’s playwright and actress, is an “ex-mathematician,” and her performance describes the hostility of “higher math” culture towards traditional femininity and people who identify with it.

I am female and a physics major, and I have seen similar hostility to femininity in some physics environments. Watching “Truth Values” helped me realize that to make the field welcoming to women, it would be useful for physics to adopt some aspects of traditionally feminine culture. While our society is hopefully working toward transcending stereotypes of “masculine” and “feminine” roles and activities, we must acknowledge that these stereotypes still hold power, that physics textbooks are rife with stereotypical images of masculinity, and that physics labs are full of men. To bring more women into physics labs, we should put feminine and masculine language side-by-side in our textbook.

De Cari graduated from UC Berkeley summa cum laude twenty years ago, and immediately enrolled in a PhD program in mathematics at MIT. She found the math department highly unfriendly to most aspects of femininity. She received glares and even official complaints when she wore skirts and dresses to work. She was sexually harassed in the library and office. She was asked to perform menial, domestic tasks that were never assigned to male students: one professor asked her to bring cookies to every seminar. Her few female co-workers dressed like men, in flannel and loose jeans, in order to avoid this type of harassment.

But the male-centric culture of mathematics wasn’t only interpersonal. De Cari describes how the culture was written into the very textbooks of the courses she taught. This is true in my experience as well. In physics classes, I come across a lot of problems like this:

“A man drives a tractor with acceleration A.
A boy swings a baseball bat with force F.
A bullet moves with speed V.”

 Frustrated and stifled in an underground office that left no room for anything traditionally feminine, de Cari half-jokingly suggested alternate premises for word problems:

A woman pushes a stroller
or
A woman goes into labor
Or, better yet,
A woman scrubs the kitchen floor

 To print these in a textbook would certainly be troublesome; the word problems appear sexist, suggesting that women ought to be taking care of babies and doing housework. But is it not prejudiced for a textbook to suggest that only men should be driving trucks and using screwdrivers?  And is it not most sexist of all to implicitly suggest, by the language of word problems, that only men belong in physics?

 Trucks, hammers, guns, baseballs and, of course, rocket ships form the basis of mechanics problem sets. Dump trucks and baseball bats and rocket ships are the toys that fill the shelves of the Toys-R-Us “gifts for boys” aisles. Bob the Builder and Thomas the Tank Engine and birthday gifts and learning-to-read books inculcated most of us with the notion, as much as we might now try to fight it, that cars and trucks, trains and planes, hammers and nails are “boys’ toys.” We have been taught to associate these items with masculinity.

 So what does a girl think when she opens a physics book and sees these brawny images littering the pages? Well, sometimes she learns to love physics; twenty percent of physics majors are indeed female, according to the New York Times. But other times, she doesn’t. Frequently, my female friends say, “Physics just isn’t for me.” Or, “I like biology more, because I can relate to it.” Rocket ship imagery implicitly signals a male domain.  My friends are put off by the book full of rocket problems, because for their fifth birthdays, they were probably given plastic kitchen sets and doll strollers instead of tubes of flying fire.

So let’s incorporate spatulas and rolling pins and electric mixers and strollers into our problem sets, for goodness’ sake. We don’t need to write problems so edgy as those at the beginning of this article about women scrubbing floors; these suggest more that a woman should be doing housework than physics. But we need to incorporate the values and activities that many girls and women are taught from childhood.

A man rolls cookie dough with a force F.
A boy pushes his baby sister in the stroller with acceleration A.
A mother helps her daughter jump rope with frequency W.

I believe that problems framed this way are not sexist but rather a much-needed dose of traditional femininity in science. They can complement “rocket problems” so that physics textbooks reach both ends of the traditional masculine-feminine spectrum.

In addition to problematic word problems, I have seen many other androcentric pedagogical techniques in physics classes. Intent on teaching us projectile motion, one high school physics teacher asked each member of my class to throw a dart at a stuffed Einstein figurine and “aim for his crotch.” Here at Swarthmore, I have learned that “all great thermodynamicists have great beards.” I have constantly heard this masculine voice amplified, but I never hear its sorely needed counterpart: a voice that reflects my own gender identity.

The hostile environment wore down Gioia de Cari. After a few years, she dropped out of her PhD program with a master’s degree in math. Let’s make room for femininity in math and science so that women in our generation don’t have to do the same.

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