SMBC: Women in Mathematics

Just a little something from the genius that is Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. Thanks to Nicole for the link!
girls in math

Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia, science-loving artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is currently in love with pottery. Daily maker of art and leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Tip Jar is here.

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  1. I became good at math because my dad thought I was a boy. Seriously. He never questioned not having a son (I have a sister), but he just treated me like a boy. He wouldn’t pick me up when I fell down, he bought boys’ clothes for me, and he tried (and failed) to teach me to throw a football.

    He encouraged me to play sports and take math & science classes. I always had an interest in science, but math was troublesome for me. I have always struggled with math, but my dad was very tough with me. He didn’t let me have any excuses… so I just buckled down and learned it. I still find math tough, but I am no longer intimidated by it. My dad told me, rightfully so, that if I wanted to be a scientist I had to learn math. So I did.

    After a while, I even thought I was becoming pretty good at math… then I took 2 math classes at MIT. Undergraduate classes. With 12-year-old human computers. I got a 17 (out of 100) on my first Linear Algebra exam. I failed all the exams, actually, except the final (which I miraculously got a B on…), but fortunately there was a generous curve and I did well on the homeworks, thanks to three to four hours of math a day and a TA who was generous with his time (probably because I had boobs, but what the heck). Anyway, at one point during my first semester at MIT I thought about dropping out… or at least dropping that pesky math class. I called my dad up to complain (and cry), and he remained firm. He told me that no, I was not dropping out of MIT, and no, I was not dropping the class. I felt guilty, so I continued my crazy studying and passed the class… with a C. I got a B in my next MIT math class. Brutal persistence is perhaps not the best method to use to get girls to stick with math… and MIT is perhaps not the best example, but in my case it worked. Maybe girls sometimes just need to be pushed a little not to quit… boys are stubborn, they want to figure out the problems. Maybe girls are just smarter and give up sooner, leaving more time for fun things :-).

    I’ve never been good at math, I’m still not good at math, but I’m persistent… or perhaps my dad is persistent. I’m glad he was- because I really like using math in my science.

    I never did learn how to throw a football, though…

  2. As far as I can tell, there are actually about as many women as men who go to grad school for mathematics. However, it’s been my experience that the overwhelming majority of women stop at the Master’s degree level, leaving only a small percentages of PhDs being female. For example, at the university from which I got my doctorate, about 50% of the math grad students were female, but about 90% of the PhDs issued were to males.

    I have to heartily agree with the sentiment of the cartoon, at least. While I won’t pretend to have a solution for the problem, I do loathe the “let’s paint it pink and call it made-for-women” nonsense. Used to be that the only difference between men’s razors and women’s were that the women’s were pink and cost 20% more.

    Still doesn’t answer the question about any stigma, or even if it is [only?] that stigma that causes the dearth of women at PhD level. (Maybe it’s just that fewer women find a life of 100-hour work weeks and miserable pay to be attractive. Maybe it’s all part of the same equation.) About all I can say for certian is that it’s not about talent: my male and female students over the years had pretty much the same distribution of talent and grades.

  3. @Yggrynd: ” (Maybe it’s just that fewer women find a life of 100-hour work weeks and miserable pay to be attractive. Maybe it’s all part of the same equation.) ”

    I dunno, maybe we should ask the girls in the Lowell mills?

  4. My daughter has fantastic aptitude for math. She consistently scores her best grades in math (she’ll be starting her junior year in September). She loves logic puzzles and sees patterns in algebra I just can’t.

    But she has absolutely no desire to pursue any career that involves math.

  5. @Evelyn: That’s a really interesting story, but I don’t believe math naturally follows boys clothing and football. You never said that to like math you have to be a tom-boy but that was an unfortunate undertone to your story. Probably due to the fact that math being masculine is so engrained in our society.

    I’m very feminine, I where pretty flowery skirts and jewelry and I enjoy shopping. At the same time I’m a black belt in Tae-Kwon-Do and I’m on the advanced math track with plans to become a physicist. I don’t see any contradiction here.

    Like the comic said, there is too much focus on making math feminine. I also think there is too much focus on making women masculine. Math is neither inherently feminine nor masculine. It’s just math. What we need to teach children is that math is not made for girls or boys. Math is made to be true. Any ‘masculine’ qualities imposed is due to our own biases and stereotypes.

  6. I used to hate the color pink and refused to wear it or own anything that was it. All because I didn’t want to be seen as a prissy girly girl and wanted to be taken seriously as an engineering student.

    Stigmas go both ways… I haven’t come up with a good enough idea on how to fix it.

  7. @MadLogician: @Elizabeth: Many years ago on “This Old House” (the Nantucket project, IIRC) they had a woman electrician for one season. She had a pair of linesman pliers with pink rubber grips on the handles. She said the main advantage was no one would steal them.

  8. LaraLynx: Good point.

    All I’m saying is this is what worked for me. I’d argue that there is no one correct way to encourage girls to pursue math. For me, I was able to do well in math because I was a tomboy and my dad (a nuclear engineer) had no sympathy for me when I complained that it was difficult. Had I been raised by my mom (an artist) alone, I probably would have given up on math long ago.

    Had my dad said, “Honey, it’s okay if you’re not good at math” I wouldn’t have tried so hard to learn it.

    Instead, he told me that I was perfectly capable of doing the math and that I should just buckle down and learn it.

    Sure, perhaps I partly fell into math and science and geology because I was (probably still am) a tomboy, but that’s just one path.

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