Math and Girls, Y’all!

Google loves women.

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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?

* * *

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.”

* * *

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!

* * *

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!


26 responses to “Math and Girls, Y’all!

  1. I say “cherubs” or “chickadees” or “chalupas” or “chick peas” or “chickens” or “chicken nuggets” lots of other words that start with “ch-“… No good reason! Started out as a way to avoid “guys.”

    I didn’t know the girls not taking math was still a huge problem. Our honors math classes all the way through AP Calc are at least 1:1, if not they are a tad more female. But we don’t have the luxury of offering electives. That may very well be a totally different story.

    • This may very well simply be an indictment of the culture at Saint Ann’s. I’m not sure. Thanks for commenting, and especially for using those terms. No idea how you landed on “ch-.”

  2. I do have a habit of calling everyone “guys”, lol. But I agree that small changes like this can definitely make a difference, especially in the classroom.

    I’ve always hated math, but that started when I was very young, when everyone had to take math. Some of my math teachers were women, too, but that didn’t make math class any more boring for me. I got the sense that just as many boys as girls hated math class. Actually, I got the sense that everyone hated math class!

    But I’m starting to explore it more now, and see if I can enjoy it. So there is still hope for me. :)

    As for why girls don’t seem to be as into math… well, I think this is just a leftover cultural bias that is finally beginning to change. Not too long ago, parents were still much more likely to buy computers for their sons than for their daughters, for example. They didn’t talk to their daughters as much about math or science or technology, and those daughters were much less likely to be interested in those things. I hope this is starting to change… I really hope so! Because change in the classroom can only do so much if change doesn’t also happen at home and in our culture as a whole.

    • “Math sucks” is even more common than “girls are bad at math.” I often think it’s because most students hardly know what math is. For most people, math is math class, which is easy to do badly.

      Thanks for commenting, Liz!

      Also, I just checked out your site, super cool!

  3. I still say ‘you guys’, even though I don’t want to. (Alice Walker has a great essay on this.) Sometimes I use you’all, but it’s not part of my ‘heritage’, so it does sound odd to people.

    My linear algebra class has 3 women and 13 men. My calculus class has 12 women and 21 men. My pre-calc has more women than men. I think a 2:1 ratio of men to women is typical at my community college in the higher level math courses.

    Yep, the idea that there’s such a thing as progress – I’m not sure about that right now, with women having to fight for basic contraceptive rights, and still dealing with hateful anti-woman abuse (from Limbaugh), etc.

    • Oh don’t get me wrong, heritage or not, saying y’all often sounds weird coming out of my mouth. Even when I hear my mom or grandma say it, it strikes me as odd. But, I do believe in it.

      There’s no question that gender issues are still a major concern. The Rush Limbaugh attack was particularly hateful and disgusting, but that’s Rush for you. I’m glad to have played a teeny little role in spreading consciousness about gender issues.

      Thanks for commenting, Sue. I’m a fan of yours as well.

  4. I found “folks” works pretty well for me most of the time. I definitely can’t pull off “y’all”.

  5. I call my students kids all the time and they call moi OLD MAN. Peace.

  6. I’m going to go ahead and play devil’s advocate.

    Is the goal to have 50% of our math majors/degrees being women? Only then can we be satisfied? Could it be–brace yourselves–that even if we did EVERYTHING in our power to level playing fields, encourage girls to study math, etc., we might still only see more like 25%? My only point is that these percentages should not be the basis upon which we measure the extent to which there is a problem of some sort somewhere. I’m not saying there isn’t a problem, just that merely citing a percentage and clucking our tongues about it not being 50-50 doesn’t convince me that there is.

    Secondly, are we all just as up in arms about the lack of men in education and social science fields?

    • I should probably not feed trolls, but you can start your research here and then read my summary.

      • Wow. What exactly makes me a “troll”? Asking honest questions?

        I’m happy to read your links. But don’t worry, I’ll just go back to keeping my mouth shut.

      • I think troll is probably a bit strong. I actually appreciate Matt’s thoughts. Frankly, I’m not sure what would satisfy me or make me feel better about gender relations and math, but it’s clear to me at this point, that things aren’t right. Whether we need 50-50 or not, we’re so far from that now, that it’s distressing.

        I’m mostly concerned with math ed, of course, but as I said above, this is only one symptom of a larger, remaining problem. What do we expect of women, and how does this shape their lives unequally?

        Thanks for your thoughts, Matt!

  7. Hello. Here in Russia (as you mentioned it) March 8 is a day off and men struggle with the problem: how to do this day unforgettable for their women. There is a good joke about it: a year consist of 1day for Women and 364 for men.
    Nowadays I watch on it as a little bit strange holiday because I’m a woman every day of the year and men can feel themselves free to be polite and careful all the time :-) .

    We have absolutely the same problems.
    1. There is no word for address to the audience or even to someone on the street. And we can’t find the solution during last 20 years. It’s hard for me to estimate your situation but I’m trying to do the same thing: to use the word that I think is right and suitable.
    2. Math classes mainly formed by boys. Yes. And philological faculties ( “The faculty of fiancees”) haven’t them at all. Hope it’ll change. As different sciences converge: math and linguistics for instance.
    All the best, Irene.
    (PS Sorry for my not perfect english.)

    • No worries about imperfect English. Believe me, my Russian is worse!

      Clearly the equality between men and women has come a long way. I just wanted to bring consciousness to this issue and ask the question: What are we doing subconsciously or otherwise to impact the mathematical development of girls?

      Thanks for your comments.

  8. I teach a spread of students from the 7th grade through the 12th grade at John Burroughs School in St. Louis in Theatre and Speech. I have gone to “Ladies and Gentleman” or the use of the specific name of the student when talking to them. I think that identifying each student individually whenever possible is absolutely the correct approach.

    Oh? And why might it be that more ladies then gentlemen choose to study theatre?

    But, in the end, gender equity is, or should be, at the heart of all organized education.

    Mr. Wayne

    • Yeah, you nailed it. Using their real names is without question the best way to handle this.

      As for theater, I could ask the very same question: What does our culture (and the culture of middle schoolers) do to impact the role of men in the theater.

      The time I spent in the theater was hugely important in my development as an emotionally connected person. To think that more girls have these experiences than boys is troubling as well. Knowing yourself and controlling your emotions is as crucial as anything.

      Thanks for chiming in!

    • Wayne! I love this response. I miss you, I hope you’ll come visit soon :) Or we could come visit you.

  9. Have y’all seen the recent research released about how parents talk to their toddler daughters (or don’t) about math? Here are two links:

    • Thanks for posting those, Grace. Really sad, of course.

      Most strikingly to me, I don’t imagine these parents are trying to steer their sons toward math and daughters away. This is representative of unconscious and likely cultural forces that shape the lives of young people. It’s exactly the reason we need increased consciousness.

  10. Elizabeth Sheridan Rossi

    As a women studying graduate level math (and teaching middle and high schoolers) I’ve done A LOT thinking on the topic of women in math. From my own experience, I think the thing that has discouraged me the most is confidence. I believe that social construct makes it so that many men are generally less self-conscious than women and I think that comes out full force in math. Let’s face it, math is hard, and when you see someone trying out answers and asking whatever questions come to mind it can be super intimidating. Now that I’m at the end of my graduate studies and taking some more advanced classes in math I am often one of (if not the only) women in classes of 30 or more. It’s very intimidating to see men all around me calling out during lecture and collaborating after class about ideas and concepts. As for what to do about it, I try and encourage the girls in my class from the inside out, on a personal level. It’s easy to congratulate a boy who has his hand up ever time I ask a question- it’s a lot harder, but I believe as important, to write a few sentences on a girls homework about how thoughtful and intelligent her ideas are.

    Just my two cents…

    • Thanks for commenting, Liz. Always glad to have your 2 cents added.

      I might point to image-consciousness instead of self-consciousness (which I think is good), but I think you’re quite right about confidence. That already points to a problem. If a student (boy or girl) is too worried about their image in the eyes of their classmates to do their best learning, then teaching could do more bad than good.

      What is it about the culture at large that makes it harder for girls to feel confident or outspoken? If the girls in my class felt like they had less right or confidence to speak or be wrong, then something would certainly be wrong.

      I can’t be certain I’m not guilty here, but at least I’m focused on this.

  11. Dear Paul, your post is very thoughtful, and you have expressed very well your discomfort about the low percentage of female attendance in elective math classes. With all due respect, I must confess I find myself emotionally removed from said situation. It does not bother me at all. I do not see it as a problem. I am not being a troll, I am just giving you my honest perspective. Don’t get me wrong, if the situation was completely reversed, 90% women vs 10% men in math classes & STEM careers, that would be perfectly O.K. with me, too. If the distribution was 50-50, or 30-70, or 70-30, for the life of me I could not care less about it. I am not defending the status quo, I am just saying it would be fine with me whatever way it was in that regard. I am all for gender equality, be it in education, social issues and anything in general. I know women have plenty of math potential, and there are examples of excellent female mathematicians. I do not know, and I acknowledge my ignorance but I choose to believe many women who are not actively pursuing math related courses, or careers, are not feeling like that fact of their lives was an injustice done to them. I may be wrong, of course but for the time being, I prefer to lighten up a little bit with a little humor, and I hope you will appreciate the intentional irony / sarcasm in the following video (it my be scary if you think it was real):

    Miss USA 2011 — Should Math Be Taught In Schools?

  12. As a girl, I’ve been subject to a lot inequality when it comes to math. I’ve often found myself wondering “why are all of boys better than me?” which I’ve now realized stems from “why does everyone assume the boys are going to be better than me?” The reason there is such a divide between the boys and the girls in math classes is because we have been raised being told, whether intentionally or not, that the boys are naturally better at math than we are, which allows us to let ourselves work less hard because we think that no matter what, we are going to do worse than our male peers. Even my dad once said to me “you should keep pursuing your math career, not many girls are as good at math as you.” It was meant as a compliment, but it made me realize that it has become normal and okay to view girls as just less good at math than boys.

    It definitely is challenging to speak up in a classroom where you are one of the only girls, but a teacher calling the class as a whole “guys” has never been a problem for me. Thank you for writing about this subject, it needed to be touched on.

  13. Hey Paul, I’m catching up on some back posts on here today.
    I liked this, and I actually recently listened to an interview with Danica McKellar on the Nerdist Podcast, and she talks about her math books she’s written that are mainly geared towards girls, and how she adjusts her approach to math to make it more appealing to that audience. They really only scratched the surface of the topic, but it was interesting to listen to as someone who’s not involved in the field of math education. You might wanna check it out if you have the chance–the episode is a few weeks old now.

  14. I think that if I had known that people like Vi Hart existed when I was in 7th grade, my relationship to math and science would probably have been very different.

    I spent most of 6th grade–thanks to my teacher Mrs. Gambee–in a full on nerd-frenzy over the Fibonacci sequence, freaking out about how the same mathematical sequence behind pinecones and nautilus shells was also responsible for the awesomeness of Greek architecture and Debussy. Then 7th grade came along and I had Mr. Watt for math class. Suddenly math became very boring, and I became very bad at it.

    This was probably not just a result of Mr. Watt being a mean, sarcastic dude who scared the crap out of me. It’s probably no coincidence that 7th grade was also when I discovered that I was pretty good at arty things like music and drama–a realization that seemed to mean that I would obviously now suck at math and science forever. I don’t know exactly where that assumption came from, but I’ll say this: If the internet had been invented back then, and if someone like Vi Hart had been out there drawing slug cats and making hexaflexagon burritos, I might have thought twice before letting myself buy into the whole arty-girls-can’t-do-math thing.

    (By the way, a google search for “they became what they beheld vi hart” is what led me to your blog just now. As if I needed another reason to be grateful to her. Really great, thought-provoking stuff here… Yes, yes, y’all.)

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