This 3-minute clip of Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson is the kind of thing that might provide just the right bit of encouragement to someone struggling to express their passion for STEM. Neil DeGrasse Tyson Said What He Thinks About Race Now That He’s Made It, And Almost Nobody Noticed.
Many years ago a math professor told me that he thought more men than women had the “lone wolf” mentality necessary to succeed in academia. After my lack of response, he added “I assume you don’t agree,” and proceeded to explain to me the idea that mathematics is not friendly to a more collaborative approach and that women are not well-suited to the publish-or-perish culture of academia. The assertion that genetic differences between men and women might explain why there are fewer female academics in the sciences was famously brought up by Larry Summers many years ago, but continues to be a popular explanation for the gender gap. In fact a recent post entitled “Neil deGrasse Tyson makes an excellent point but Larry Summers is still right” on Scientific American’s The Curious Wavefunction espouses more of this type of thinking.
One of the ideas that Chris Martin, author of the above post, proposes is that women have a wider variety of interests so that a woman who is good at math might also be good at writing. And then she might choose a writing intensive career where as men are more one-track minded, and would be good either only in math or only in writing. The man would therefore risk putting all of his effort towards honing that skill, sacrificing relationships and other aspects of his life to that end. This theory is at first appealing, but I know that I greatly enjoy the flow (the sense of time being irrelevant) when I am deeply entrenched in a problem, and I am sometimes quite focused to the dismay of my husband or child. So when I read Izabella Laba’s post at The Accidental Mathematician entitled G.H. Hardy and Mrs. Ellis , I really identified with the idea that she put forward. Her response to the Greater Male Variability Theory is that women have been conditioned by society to be pretty good at a wide variety of things rather than being exceedingly good at any one. She quotes a popular 19th century book of advice by a Mrs. Ellis in which women are cautioned against trying too hard at any one thing. And then I tried imagining the reactions that might be garnered by a woman who went without shaving for weeks until her body hair grew long and scraggly, who refused to spend more than two hours a day with her child, who was so deeply lost in thought that she did not bother responding to colleagues verbal greetings and stared at the floor while she paced the halls….
While Mr. Martin’s explanation is based on evolutionary biology, Dr. Laba’s explanation is one based on culture and societal pressures. While Martin claims that the socialization model no longer holds water, many commenters disagree with him.
They point to studies such as the ones highlighted by recent Huffingtion Post bloggers Women Aren’t Bad At Math, But New Study Suggests Both Genders Think They Are and Why is the Math Gender Gap so much worse in the US that in other Countries? In these posts, the writers discuss the gender gap in two different contexts: the job market and in education. But in both cases, stereotypes get in the way. A related phenomenon is Imposter Syndrome, which is discussed in Faking It: Women, Academia, and Impostor Syndrome.
Being an optimist, I am going to operate under that assumption that removing obstacles is not a waste of time. Here is one great list of proposed changes for academia to consider: How to Level the Playing Field for Women in Science
A new NPR series on Women in STEM features an interview with Jo Boaler, a well-known mathematics educator who talks in particular about educating girls in math.
And here is a blog where you can read all about and post about the science your grandmother did: Grandma Got Stem!
Please share your opinions and other good blog posts that address mathematics and the gender gap.