How to Be Good at Math as a Woman: Pretend You're Someone Else

Illustration for article titled How to Be Good at Math as a Woman: Pretend You're Someone Else

Do you know how, in the education system, everyone is always saying that women are terrible at math and then if you make a math mistake when you're called up to the board everyone's like, "THAT'S IT; GET YOUR UTERUS OUT OF HERE; SWING THOSE CHILD-BEARING HIPS OFF TO A HUMANITIES LESSON." No? Well, ok, it happens all the time but it's usually a lot more understated than that.

According to a recent study which is seriously titled "L'eggo My Eggo: Reducing the Gender Gap in Math by Unlinking the Self from Performance," that unspoken bias has a significant negative effect on how women perform at math. According to Research Digest, the experiment worked in the following way:

Shen Zhang and her team tested 110 women and 72 men (all were undergrads) on 30 multiple-choice maths questions. To ramp up the stereotype threat, the participants were told that men usually outperform women on maths performance. Crucially, some of the participants completed the test after writing their own name at the top of the test paper, whereas the others completed the test under one of four aliases (Jacob Tyler, Scott Lyons, Jessica Peterson, or Kaitlyn Woods). For the latter group, the alias was pre-printed on the first test page, and the participants wrote it on the top of the remainder.

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Interestingly, the authors of the study were testing for two distinct stereotype threats: the first was the self-reputation threat, which is when women fear doing poorly because it will be taken as proof of the "women suck at math!" stereotype. The second was the group-reputation threat, which is when women are anxious that their bad performance will reflect badly on womankind in general. The group-reputation threat is that fear that plagues you when you think that your neighbors might be able to see you surreptitiously weeping into your FroYo as you watch Twilight 3: Breaking Dawn, Part 2, alone, with those weird pedicure shoes on.

The results show that both fears sap the vigor out of women's math abilities, just like the unborn vampire child Renesmee sapped the life out of mortal Bella in Twilight 3: Breaking Dawn, Part 2. Women who took the test under a false name — male or female — performed significantly better than women who put their own name on the top. Men, unsurprisingly enough, were unaffected by the name on top of the paper. The paper's author suggest this means that "concerns about self-reputation are a prominent component of stereotype threat among a general sample of women in math, and largely drive women’s underperformance in situations that cue gender stereotypes.”

In short, sisterhood is powerful; with great power comes great responsibility; therefore, with sisterhood comes a great burden of responsibility. QED. I am so good at math and I am writing under my own name.

"If Women Assume Fake Names, They Do Better on Math Tests" [Smithsonian]
Image via Getty.

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DISCUSSION

When I was in elementary school, I loved math. My grades were terrific. I had a fantastic sixth grade teacher, and she encouraged a deep love of mathematics among all the students.

Then, in seventh grade, at the junior high school, I had a coach as a teacher. Coaches were often shuttled into teaching jobs to justify larger salaries for their coaching jobs. Usually, it was something like health class or something, but this time, it was math. The coach, on the very first day, announced to the class that he did not expect the same level of work from the females in the class because "girls aren't good at math." We weren't expected to turn in the same homework, which is kind of amazing. We were ridiculed the very few times we went to the board. By the end of the first month, I had lost all interest in learning math. I didn't do the homework. I stopped being called to the board at all after the first two weeks, when I was ridiculed for not understanding something about one of the equations. (Of course, teaching consisted of "read the assignment." There was no actual instruction of any sort.)

My grades fell to a D, which was horrifying for me, an A student. The girls in the class began to openly cheat. Not the boys, who got in trouble, but the girls only. I lost an entire, very important year of math as a result of all this shenanigans. By the time I reached high school, I was convinced I could not "do" math. And that was that. All the while, I was reading books about physics and science, not realizing that much of what I was reading was mathematically based. As long as I didn't know, I had reasonable comprehension. Although I was thirteen, I have to take responsibility for listening to this asshole and giving up so easily. But, I will stick a math book up the rear of anyone who tells this same nonsense to my own child.