Friday, July 24, 2009

Myth-Busting: What's Gender Got to Do with It?

Mind Over Math's Myth #1 was: Men are better at math than women. Sigh... I hope my grandchildren will think of that as quaint nonsense.

Let the myth-busting begin! I've gathered together 4 different perspectives on the issue. Mostly we're looking at nature versus nurture here, but there are lots of angles to this.

We all know what drives this myth. There are lots more male mathematicians (PhD level, anyway), engineers, and statisticians. And at least in the U.S., there have been big differences in math comfort level and skill level between women and men. But there is some great research on how these differences are connected to the broader culture (thereby having nothing to do with innate ability).

International comparisons show the cultural variability
The World Economic Forum has created a measure of the gender gap in each country. It turns out that, in countries with a smaller gender gap overall, there is usually also a smaller gender gap in math performance, or even a reversal - in Iceland, girls do significantly better than boys in math. Unfortunately for those of us who live here, the U.S. is not even near the top of the list for gender equality.

Of course, there are naysayers who doubt that this is the whole story. Larry Summers, then president of Harvard, made the claim that perhaps the average ability wasn't much different between men and women, but men, so he claimed, have more variability, and so there are both more dunces and more geniuses among men. (Slate wrote a good article on the Summers fiasco.) Interesting hypothesis, but wrong. Janet Mertz gave a talk at a conference I attended in April (see my original post here), on a paper she co-authored, which looks at that very top level of performance. In countries with greater gender equality, there are more women in these top ranks, and the link to culture is clear.

Stereotype Threat
So, in general, the more equality overall, the better women do in math. But how does this operate on an individual level? Here's some psychology research on that. The term 'stereotype threat' refers to the fear that people have that their behavior will confirm a stereotype. That fear interferes measurably with performance on tests, when gender or race is brought to attention before the test. Actually, the reverse can happen too: Men, reminded that men generally do better in math than women, will do better than they otherwise would on a math test.

I learned about this at that April conference, where Fred Smyth, of the Full Potential Initiative, gave a great talk about it. Here's another good summary of the research, from NYU.

Not different abilities, but perhaps different learning styles
Of course, that's just one piece of the puzzle. Here's another. There are differences overall in learning styles among girls and boys, according to Jo Boaler. In her book What's Math Got to Do with It? she discusses girls' stronger need to understand why. In classrooms where that need isn't honored, girls are turned off to math, more than the boys are. Boaler also describes how classes that focus on the 'why' are better for both boys and girls. She quotes a great book, In a Different Voice, by Carol Gilligan. Gilligan claims that women are more likely to be 'connected' thinkers and men are more likely to be 'separate' thinkers. (But we may want to ask whether that difference comes from nature or nurture.)

More Myths to Bust
About a decade ago, when I read Women in Mathematics: The Addition of Difference, by Claudia Henrion, I was so relieved. It was what I'd been looking for for years. All the other books I'd read on women in math were either collections of biographies or cheerleading (we-can-do-it, rah rah). Finally, in 1997, Henrion brought us some explanations. She described the myths about what it means to be a mathematician, and then gave examples of women mathematicians whose lives disproved those myths. I found a great review of this book at Thus Spake Zuska. She listed the myths this way:
  • Mathematicians work in complete isolation
  • Women and mathematics don't mix
  • Mathematicians do their best work in their youth
  • Mathematics and politics don't mix
  • Only white males do mathematics
  • Mathematics is a realm of complete objectivity
We see some overlap with the Mind Over Math list, and some new ones. The one about mathematicians working in isolation struck me. I quit my Phd program because I couldn't stand the thought of years and years of studying alone. I wanted to work with people more. But some mathematicians do work together. Henrion's examples to bust this myth are Karen Uhlenbeck and Marian Pour-El, both of whom have done much of their work jointly with other mathematicians.

Plain old sexism
"Maybe you're just not cut out for this." I heard that from a math prof when I was an undergrad at the University of Michigan. I never knew whether it was sexism or not. Maybe he said it to struggling male students too. But plenty of women have shared stories with me of blatant sexism directed at them in math class or from a math teacher. Yes, it's still happening. And it's still having a destructive effect. But perhaps this is an example of exponential decay - we'll always see a bit of it, but maybe it's heading closer and closer to zero.

Myth #1 has had more effect on my life than any of the others, but it's not the biggest problem in most people's math lives. More myth-busting coming soon!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Math Blog Directory