The Math/Science Divide

23 Mar

Why don’t girls excel in math science? Well, for one thing what does excel mean? I’m a (mature) girl and I’m good at math but don’t find it to be particularly compelling. I much prefer studies involving people and social behavior. I quite took to college Physics (as let’s face it, it explains the whole freaking universe) but never loved it enough to marry it. I do know female mathematicians, programmers and scientist (rocket and otherwise.) They exist in moderately significant numbers. Are there still a lot of lockers available in the lady scientist dressing room? Yes, and it’s a good thing attention is being paid. But what about boys?

If we’re going to engage in conversations that generalize gender why do we focus on girls’ deficits? Why is it we never discuss the gender discrepancies in the social sciences? Where are the boys in studies of philosophy, exposition, psychology, and sociology? Do they measure up? Why is it that the top (public) high schools in New York City are for math/science studies only? Do math and science concentrations lead to better paying jobs? Sometimes, but when did public high schools revert back to their roots of workplace preparation? I suspect that what’s really at the root of the exultation of math & science is the very fact that it has been a male-dominated field.

We have a long rich history of imbuing male centric endeavors or behaviors with positive attributes. It is immaterial for this argument, to dissect what gender behaviors are learned (aka socialized) and which are innate. Any parent of a baby will share with you their surprise when his/her yet to be socialized tyke exhibited gender stereotypes. Is it that the parents are looking for gender specific behavior in their child (and fail to be impressed by gender atypical or gender neutral behavior)? It doesn’t matter. Gender is very very important to people. It’s the first thing one asks when hearing about a new baby. It’s the first question on almost any form. We’ve decided it’s important and part of how you elevate a concept is to attribute it with certain characteristics.

Fine. But why are characteristics long associated with boys some how more desirable than characteristics attributed to girls? When did we decide that expressing emotion is a weakness? Was it at the same time we decided that an affinity with numbers is more admirable than an affinity with language? Why do we think that understanding machines is more valuable than understanding people? While it is true that as a cultural we are becoming slightly less rigid around gender issues. We have quite a ways to go. At the heart of much of our rigidity is our sense that boys are strong (which equals good) and girls are soft (which equals bad.) This core belief colors much of what we do as a society and traditionally has left little wiggle room for boys who enjoy a softer side and girls who enjoy a stronger side.


Posted by on March 23, 2013 in Childhood, Cultural Critique, Education


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4 responses to “The Math/Science Divide

  1. mph

    March 23, 2013 at 12:40 pm

    I think you raise some good points. They are the legacy of 5000 years of surviving, defending, inventing, raising food and trying to pass what you can on to your children. Clearly fairly rigid gender roles were part of the process and the effects of such roles linger today. Isn’t this normal in a sense; don’t cultural beliefs and influences change more slowly than we’d like. Yet haven’t we as a society made it clear that you can choose a different path today. Why in today’s world let culture, society or any other source of “norms” decide what is right, or right for you. Why care over much about what others think. Everyone in the world can be doing the wrong thing, but you can choose to do what is right, at least as best you can discern it. Others may decide expressing emotions is weak or valuing building things is superior to gaining insights into the human psyche, you don’t have to buy into any of it (each of these qualities or abilities actually has its place and value depending on circumstances of course). No one has to buy into the cultural programming once you reach the age you can think for yourself. Do what you think is right and encourage others to do the same. Then own your choices. In my view there is only one right any of us have, and that is the right to become wise through self-effort. And I don’t think either gender is at an advantage in such a pursuit.

  2. mireilleboutin

    March 23, 2013 at 11:40 am

    I have a PhD in mathematics and I often get the comment: “but you don’t look like a mathematician”. I wonder: what is a mathematician supposed to look like? I have a vague suspicion that female mathematicians are supposed to look “unfeminine” , but I really hope I am wrong…

    • brendatobias

      March 23, 2013 at 11:53 am

      I too hope you’re wrong. But I suspect we’re right.


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