Do We Suck At Math Because Of Biology Or The Patriarchy?

Illustration for article titled Do We Suck At Math Because Of Biology Or The Patriarchy?

Ever since ex-Harvard President Lawrence Summers said that women are not succeeding in math and science careers because of innate biological differences, there have been numerous articles written, some supporting Summers and some trashing him. Though no one has come to a definitive conclusion, everyone agrees that there are too few females pursuing high level math and science careers. An article from the December issue of Scientific American attempts to summarize all the important sociological and statistical studies about women in science and finds that in the bell curve of mathematical ability, most women end up clustered around the middle, while men more often fall on the high and low ends of the ability spectrum, meaning there are more male math geniuses, and more male math morons, then there are women in either category.

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The most interesting part of Scientific American's survey is the discussion of the "real-world impact" of attitudes towards women in science. The magazine says that at the top levels, many aspects of scientists' careers are determined by peer reviews and that there is a "shroud of secrecy" surrounding these reviews and that "awarding of grants, acceptance of academic papers for publication and decisions about hiring — are judged by a panel of other, often anonymous, scientists." It's possible that these anonymous scientists have completely sexist attitudes, keeping women from the highest levels of scientific achievement.

That still doesn't explain why Anna and I were awesome at math (and even enjoyed it!) until about age 12 or 13. Did teachers stop encouraging us? Were we getting tacit cultural messages telling us that girls aren't good at math? Were our tween brains addled by hormones? It's not entirely clear. What about you? Did you feel like you were encouraged at math and science, or did you find the same adolescent math block that we did?

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Sex, Math And Scientific Achievement [Scientific American]

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DISCUSSION

jennasauers
Jenna Sauers

@cannotedit: That's interesting — because while I started out kind of good at maths but hating it (I did well on a test my first year of high school, which qualified my for my school's accelerated maths program [a class of students who study the subject one year ahead] and I only agreed to participate because I thought, 'Sweet, accelerated maths means one fewer year of maths!'), I ended up with an enduring fascination for the subject, but no aptitude for it whatsoever. Year 13 Calculus (New Zealand school system) remains the only class I have ever failed.

As fascinated as I was by things like integration and derivation (and the idea that with one simple operation, you can go from [a number that defines the total surface area of a sphere] to [a number that defines that sphere's total volume] to [a number that defines that sphere's rate of expansion when x defines the volume of air being pumped into it per minute]) I found my equations never were correct. Ever. I cried trying to apply the Trapezium rule and had no hope once the class moved on to Simpson's. Maths was getting more and more interesting — the equations were more elegant, the concepts were more complex, the applications were more obscure but more far-reaching. But my comprehension of the equations involved dropped off precipitously once we moved past quadratic equations.