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A Word about Math

Saturday, May 18, 2013
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.