News to many (mostly delivered by Google’s home page), but today is International Women’s Day!
Fun fact: On March 8, 1917, Russian demonstrations marking International Women’s Day initiated the February Revolution! (Thanks to Bill Everdell, with whom I share my classroom, for that little tidbit.) More would know the holiday if we lived in Russia, of course. Even places from Afghanistan to Zambia have made this a national holiday.
Well, I’ve been thinking about gender equality for a long while, especially with regards to math, so I thought I’d share some thoughts.
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I would say we have a real problem with girls and math. I won’t site studies, but let me share some observations:
Graduate mathematics students are overwhelmingly male. This term, for instance, we have four women in Complex Analysis. Algebraic Topology has none.
Top scorers on math contests are routinely male. Why?
I teach a class of 8th graders that segregate themselves by gender every single day, without so much as a word about it. What is that?
At Saint Ann’s I created a course called “Algebra 2: Functions and Abstract Algebra.” In its first two years, only three girls have taken the class. Another two dropped the first day. Am I the problem?
We also now have a fine spread of one semester math electives for high schoolers. They’re buried here, but we offer incredible courses like Intro Topology, Non-Euclidean Geometry, Fractals and Chaos, and The Complex Plane. And yet, registrants are overwhelmingly male. My Complex Plane course hadn’t a single girl in it!
Even our incredible Mathematical Art Seminar (a group of more than 20 students) has only four girls!!! What is going on?
This is killing me.
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Especially, since I also teach 5th grade, where it is plain to see that my students are equally apt. Few will disagree that boys and girls look and behave differently (how else could we tell them apart?), but I don’t see even the slightest tendency to mathematical weakness in my female students. Some of the most delightfully playful, thoughtful, and powerfully-minded 11 year-old mathematicians I know are girls.
What gives? “What happens to girls in math class?” (I was asked that by a parent of two incredible girls this year.)
I don’t know…. I don’t have the answers…. I can’t fix the problem, on my own, but I’m sure that consciousness is the first step. (It almost always is.)
So I think about it everyday. How do I treat girls differently? Do I call on them as much? Do I expect the same from them? Do I talk to them the same way? Do I look at them the same way? Do I fear creeping them out? Does that differently shape the male-female teacher-student relationship? Is it not possible to have the same relationships with female students as I have with males?
It’s very easy for me question my actions, but extremely hard to know what it’s like for my female students, or even my male ones for that matter. I simply stay conscious and make every attempt, big or small, to encourage female mathematicians. We’ve made extra effort on Math Munch, for instance, to include stories about females in mathematics. Check out this and this.
The math question is only part of a much larger set of societal issues. As the spring clothes come out, think about what’s going on. What do we expect of our girls?
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A turning point for me came when I read Douglas Hofstadter’s incredible tome, Metamagical Themas. I greatly encourage you to read the section called “A Person Paper on Purity in Language.” In it, Hofstadter argues against our gender-based language habits, and by analogy (as usual) to racial language, reduces it to absurdity. Let me reiterate; This paper is totally worth reading. It’s had a great influence on me.
It’s the reason I feel completely awkward every time I hear or say, “you guys.” Sometimes I almost can’t stop myself, even when I’m speaking to a group of all girls. What is that about!? They’re not guys. Five years ago, I would have said, “it’s fine. Who cares? Even girls do it,” but now it actually makes me cringe.
And so, I have made a very small change.
I say “y’all.”
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My mom’s side of the family is from Tennessee and Kentucky, so I’ve heard y’all plenty of times. Younger me found y’all entirely repugnant. The plural “yous” is also an option, but unfortunately both often carry low-class connotations.
Nonetheless, I say y’all.
Saying it means confronting and denying a strange male-default. I take some pleasure in sounding a bit more like personal hero, Ben Folds, but I keep on, because I believe it’s right. In any case, it certainly sounds awkward at times, especially in private school NYC, but I couldn’t care less.
The more I say it, the more naturally it flows. Better yet, every time someone comments or questions me, I have the perfect opportunity to discuss gender equality!
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I’d LOVE to hear from readers about what you do to take on these issues. Please comment!
In any case, thanks for reading, y’all!!! Happy Women’s Day!