Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Girls & Women, Doing Math

I've written a chapter on gender for my book, Playing With Math: Stories from Math Circles, Homeschoolers, and the Internet. It doesn't quite fit with the rest of the book. When Maria was visiting last month she asked what it had to do with play. The best response I could give her was: You’ve got to want to play the game. It’s not my game if there are no role models for me.

I want to ask readers of my blog a few questions:
  1. Imagine an alternate universe that's somehow matrifocal (women at the center). [Yes, yes, that's quite a stretch, and my son would complain - that's not fair! But let's just imagine this for a few minutes...] What would math look like in your version of this universe? Go wild...
  2. Yes Magazine does not shy away from the hard issues, but it does come at them from as positive a perspective as possible, addressing how people are working to improve things. I'd like my chapter to do the same. I would love to hear your ideas in that regard - How can we heal? How can we support girls?
  3. What do social justice issues have to do with play, anyway?

Note: Here's what I've said before on this topic.


  1. I love math just the way it is, thanks. I was an introverted girl, and the puzzles, brain teasers, contest problems and just plain math classes were things that were fun and both easy and challenging for me (easy in that I could do them--I'm good at visualizing and manipulating in math, and challenging because it's always the most fun when it's just at the edge of your ability).

    I've been doing math with some 2nd and 3rd grade girls lately, and what they think is fun is games and puzzles about things they enjoy. We've played games like race to 100 (roll dice and take that many cents--exchange pennies for nickels and dimes, first to 100 wins); tens go fish (put down pairs that add to 10. We also play what I call the shopping game: over time, the children make pictures on small cards, and I assign them money values (whatever numbers I want us to practice), then everyone starts with a certain amount of play money, and take turns buying things until we all run out of money. No one wins (do you win when you go shopping???). The book group solutions has some good puzzles, and they both like the ones where you use clues to figure out which one the right pizza is. When I make up word problems for them to solve, I ask them what I should make the problem about (stickers or stars or clothes or whatever).

    I don't know if that's helpful, but I thought I'd spout off some thoughts for you.

  2. Yes, it's helpful. Maria and I have talked about how much story-telling helps many girls (you and I may be outliers) connect with math.

  3. I can't figure out question 1 but for 3 I'd say we play best when we feel safe. Role models are important - in my childhood games I was always the knight, there were no stories with girl action heroes.

    That said, the girls in my mixed Grade 6 class are super-confident and excited about doing well at math. If they don't meet many female mathematicians, neither have they met any male ones. They do know lots of strong, successful women, and they are their own and each others' 'mathwhizz' role models.

    Johannesburg, South Africa

  4. I was just talking about the role of safety today. Do you think it matters more for girls than for boys (overall)?

  5. I love maths really.My favorite topic in maths is how to convert a non-terminating decimal expansion into a rational number of the form p/q. I like this basic concept in maths because it is tricky, of-course maths is tricky.

  6. Hi Sree. Thanks for joining us. I'm wondering how this relates to gender? (If you're a girl or a woman, I guess just telling us your favorite topic is helpful... I remember in high school how mystifying that felt to me, changing repeating decimals to fractions. It was like magic.)

  7. (I'm thinking of your Myth-Busting post also as I write this, and I'm glad you cited Jo Boaler's "What's Math...")

    If matrifocal, then the current disparity would not exist between boys and girls as engineers and mathematicians. But because I believe that women are more innately nurturing, we'd see to it that gender equality is a human right and not some ideology. (I love the boys and the men in my life, but I swear women just get things done and done faster :)

    We can't heal if we don't know that we are hurt. We think being bad in math is just a natural thing! It breaks my heart just that much more when a female student dismisses her hard work in math since she's been self-medicated with the line "I'm not good in math." My students' moms way outnumber the dads in saying this same bullshit.

    Like other comments here, we support girls by being role models, advocating for them at every turn, and providing safe sharing environments. Our classroom IS the real life for these kids, so I'd start there. Our boys, meanwhile, are watching and listening, they can learn too.

  8. Thanks for taking me up on my imaginary scenario, Fawn.

    I was actually wondering if the way we learn and do math might be substantially different. I get so caught up in how different education in general would be, it's hard to imagine math, in particular.


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