mathbabe

Gender bias in math

I don’t agree with everything she always says, but I agree with everything Izabella Laba says in this post called Gender Bias 101 For Mathematicians (hat tip Jordan Ellenberg). And I’m kind of jealous she put it together in such a fantastic no-bullshit way.

Namely, she debunks a bunch of myths of gender bias. Here’s my summary, but you should read the whole thing:

  1. Myth: Sexism in math is perpetrated mainly by a bunch of enormously sexist old guys. Izabella: Nope, it’s everyone, and there’s lots of evidence for that.
  2. Myth: The way to combat sexism is to find those guys and isolate them. Izabella: Nope, that won’t work, since it’s everyone.
  3. Myth: If it’s really everyone, it’s too hard to solve. Izabella: Not necessarily, and hey you are still trying to solve the Riemann Hypothesis even though that’s hard (my favorite argument).
  4. Myth: We should continue to debate about its existence rather than solution. Izabella: We are beyond that, it’s a waste of time, and I’m not going to waste my time anymore.
  5. Myth: Izabella, you are only writing this to be reassured. Izabella: Don’t patronize me.

Here’s what I’d add. I’ve been arguing for a long time that gender bias against girls in math starts young and starts at the cultural level. It has to do with expectations of oneself just as much as a bunch of nasty old men (by the way, the above is not to say there aren’t nasty old men (and nasty old women!), just that it’s not only about them).

My argument has been that the cultural differences are larger than the talent differences, something Larry Summers strangely dismissed without actually investigating in his famous speech.

And I think I’ve found the smoking gun for my side of this argument, in the form of an interactive New York Times graphic from last week’s Science section which I’ve screenshot here:

What this shows is that 15-year-old girls out-perform 15-year-old boys in certain countries and under-perform them in others. Those countries where they outperform boys is not random and has everything to do with cultural expectations and opportunities for girls in those countries and is explained to some extent by stereotype threat. Go read the article, it’s fascinating.

I’ll say again what I said already at the end of this post: the great news is that it is possible to address stereotype threat directly, which won’t solve everything but will go a long way.

You do it by emphasizing that mathematical talent is not inherent, nor fixed at birth, and that you can cultivate it and grow it over time and through hard work. I make this speech whenever I can to young people. Spread the word!