Morning Ponderings: Math, Sexism, and Behavioral Genetics

I mentioned a few posts back that Steven Pinker’s book “The Blank Slate” convinced me that there probably are SOME behaviorally genetic differences between human males and human females. He cited a number of excellent examples, including very convincing work involving people who were sexually reassigned as infants tending to spontaneously gender-identify with their biological sex.

Meanwhile, some time ago I had done some comics on teaching math to girls. I was, and still am, of the opinion that it is not obvious that one gender should be superior at math. Math is such a diverse field of study, whose areas require such various suites of skills, that it just seems unlikely to me that one sex should be better in all areas. Some people have tried to deal with this issue in a way I don’t agree with. Notably, Danica McKellar wrote several math books for girls titled “Math Doesn’t Suck” and “Kiss My Math.” While I like the idea of appealing to middle school girls about math, I question the attitudes being layered with the math.

I actually looked through these books, and here’s what I found: Essentially, these are standard algebra texts, but the word problems are often about fashion and shopping, there are asides about relationships, and (the only truly damning thing) there are “math horoscopes.” I dislike this because I believe math is in essence genderless. It is a matter of understanding how reality works. I also dislike the implicit assumption that girls will be more apt to get into math if it’s about shopping. I don’t think I’d be comfortable buying a math book “for boys” that involved guns and the trajectory questions of peeing while standing up. Bottomline, I think the goal should be to change the way young girls are taught (are allowed!) to think, rather than changing math to suit young girls.

That said, if there are behavioral genetic differences, it seems to me that it’s reasonable to suspect the route by which you arrive at good results (i.e. more women enjoying math and mathematical sciences) might lie in harnessing those differences. One of Pinker’s claims is that women are more likely to be interested on social issues. I don’t know if this is true, but for the sake of argument, let’s say it is.

Reading that idea made me think of another book, different in time and focus – A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith. If you haven’t read this book, you should. It’s excellent, and was once standard middle school/high school reading. More importantly for this discussion, it focuses on a young girl (Francie) who is intellectually precocious. For example, the book describes the girl working her way alphabetically through all the books at the library. I believe she gets through “B.” Not bad. It also describes why she liked doing arithmetic.

From the book:

“She liked numbers and sums. She devised a game in which each number was a family member and the “an­swer” made a family grouping with a story to it. Naught was a babe in arms. He gave no trouble. Whenever he appeared you just “carried” him. The figure 1 was a pretty baby girl just learning to walk, and easy to handle; 2 was a baby boy who could walk and talk a little. He went into family life (into sums, etc.) with very little trouble. And 3 was an older boy in kindergarten, who had to be watched a little. Then there was 4, a girl of Francie’s age. She was almost as easy to “mind” as 2. The mother was 5, gentle and kind. In large sums, she came along and made everything easy the way a mother should. The father, 6, was harder than the others but very just. But 7 was mean. He was a crotchety old grand­father and not at all accountable for how he came out. The grandmother, 8, was hard too, but easier to under­stand than 7. Hardest of all was 9. He was company and what a hard time fitting him into family life!

When Francie added a sum, she would fix a little story to go with the result. If the answer was 924, it meant that the little boy and girl were being minded by company while the rest of the family went out. When a number such as 1024 appeared, it meant that all the little chil­dren were playing together in the yard. The number 62 meant that papa was taking the little boy for a walk; 50 meant that mama had the baby out in the buggy for an airing and 78 meant grandfather and grandmother sitting home by the fire of a winter’s evening. Each single combination of numbers was a new set-up for the family and no two stories were ever the same.

Francie took the game with her up into algebra. X was the boy’s sweetheart who came into the family life and complicated it. Y was the boy friend who caused trouble. So arithmetic was a warm and human thing to Francie and occupied many lonely hours for her time.”

If you’re dork enough, you see not only an interesting technique, but a young mind pulling on big threads. She’s intuitively discovered differences between odds and evens, identities, and even has a sense (note the crotchety old number 7) of the weirdness of primes.

(Incidentally, lest you think the fact that the males tend to be more ‘complex’ is sexist, the technique is a bit out of context. Without giving away plot points, suffice it to say that the males in the book tend to be less reliable and good than the women.)

Having this thought in my head, it occurred to me that if I had daughters, it might be worthwhile to give them this technique. If young girls really are interested in social situations, this seems like a hell of a good way to to backdoor in some math. In fact, not only does it backdoor in some math, it has a built in way of thinking mnemonically. If you learn this technique, you remember numbers, even big ones, as having special qualities. It’s easy to imagine Francie learning advanced math and wrapping it in bigger and bigger stories

Then the part of my brain that deals in social taboos said “isn’t that sexist?” “Aren’t you being a hypocrite to say McKellar is doing it wrong now?” Let me address both points.

Is it sexist? I don’t think so, and here’s why. First, it seems to me that a fact cannot be sexist. I don’t know whether such a teaching mode would work or not, but I don’t think that has a bearing on how you valuate men and women.

Second, I can think of comparable examples that nobody would call sexist. For instance, it’s said that Feynman saw certain symbols as having colors. That is, alpha is blue, gamma is brown, psi is green, et cetera. He felt this improved his ability to work equations. If you found out an all-girls school was teaching this technique, you might be tempted to call it sexist – “why can’t girls just be taught math? Why are we teaching them that 4 is pink?!” So you see things depend a bit on framing. Would we call Feynman “girly” if we found out he saw delta as baby pink? I suspect not. And, I suspect the same would be true if we found out he thought of 7 as an angry grandpa.

The McKellar question I find more troubling, especially as I believe we’re largely on the same side of this issue. But, I would argue that there is a nuanced, but still important, distinction.

McKellar is talking about middle school girls who presumably already have socially and genetically formed views on lots of things. They’re designed to appeal to girls who’ve decided they don’t like math, or who are at risk of doing so. What bothers me is that I think this doesn’t deal with the root problem – the common notion that math isn’t “for” girls. In that it creates a safe place for some girls to enjoy math, I appreciate it. But it seems like we’d do better to start earlier – to cure the problem, if it is a problem, rather than palliate it.

I believe a big part of being successful at math is a lack of fear. A lot of people, male and female, genuinely fear math. But, what if you could make math just part of your everyday experience from childhood? Then, I suspect, books about how math is like shopping, wouldn’t be necessary.

Let’s assume, as many socially liberal parents I know have been disappointed to discover, that girls tend to like babydolls and boys tend to like guns. There’s nothing inherently more mathy about either of these. But they’re both ways to sneak in math. The gun comes with a chance to talk about trajectory, momentum, drag, and even chemical energy storage. But the babydoll is no less replete with possibilities. It’s an opportunity to talk about game theory, or to organize social affairs as logical chains.

My hope would be that once you’ve made mathematical thinking part of this individual’s brain, by the time they’re older the stigma would be less of a problem. That is, by saying “social relations? That’s behavioral economics!” and “Relationships? That’s discrete mathematics!” you might be able to break someone of that fear of math as The Other. If you can achieve that, then the gender issues become irrelevant – you’ve shown them the beautiful world of math. With luck, that could mean that they’ll love math abstractly, without dressing it up for them.

Because, of course, math is best enjoyed in naked form.

______

Disclaimer: The above is just some morning thoughts I had that somehow grew into a 1600 word article. I suspect I’m being a bit hypocritical and haven’t properly sourced everything. I’m still analyzing how I think about gender and mathematics, and hoping it’ll be more of a fun point of discussion than anything. Please please tell me I’m stupid, and provide citations.

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32 Responses to Morning Ponderings: Math, Sexism, and Behavioral Genetics

  1. George says:

    Great post summarizing a lot of my thoughts on the subject, just one bit I disagree with. Near the end:

    “But the babydoll is no less replete with possibilities. It’s an opportunity to talk about game theory, or to organize social affairs as logical chains.”

    This is a stretch, and I feel like you know it. Momentum, drag, etc, are relatively simple concepts with obvious ways to connect them to guns and make them interesting. But game theory, for a girl still playing with dolls? And using logical chains to describe social affairs sounds like the topic of a PhD dissertation. Might as well talk about using stochastic modelling to describe the way the doll’s dress moves and folds. It’s not relevant to the doll, won’t be interesting to the girl, it’s obviously way too advanced, and those problems aside, there’s no way to transition to it, unlike the discussion with guns.

    The underlying issue, I think, is not just how girls and boys are treated differently with regards to their mathematics education, but rather how girls and boys are treated differently with regards to their roles in society. Granted, the argument can be made (rather strongly) that girls are genetically predisposed to dolls because of their biologically programmed roles as mothers. Equally guilty in the disparity of perceived gender roles is the “princessification” from popular media, or on the opposite end, the message of radical feminism that a strong woman must choose between hating men or becoming a man, etc.

    tldr – misrepresentation of mathematics as “not for women” is in fact just a facet of a much deeper-rooted problem with society’s treatment of sex differences in general.

    • ZachWeiner says:

      I think it’s a fair point, but consider it from another perspective:

      Many mathematicians complain that pre-college math is geared entirely toward eventually learning calculus. This comes at the expense of very useful areas, like statistics, probability theory, discrete math, and linear algebra.

      Calculus is the mathematical analysis of change. So, if we’re brought up to focus on calc (implicitly or explicitly), of course questions about things like trajectory are obvious.

      But what if we were brought up on discrete math, statistics, and economic analysis. Okay, it probably won’t happen, but it’s certainly conceivable. In such an environment, you can imagine it being relevant. Or, at least, as relevant to a 9 year old as the trajectory of his nerf arrow :)

      You may be right, though. I might just be sticking wishful thinking in place of a more reasonable view.

      • Brandon says:

        Why not tap Geometry? Seems like a far more elegant answer… there are a whole lot of shapes, angles, and proportional relations within a doll.. and underlining how to think spatially, to understand the intuitively primed link regarding which organization of shapes which make a face, and how the recognizable humanity or life of the object changes if you distort the mathematical relation of the parts, would be very valuable as to introducing a love or at least native understanding of math’s participation in the world.

  2. JD says:

    Hm, the bit about Francie’s method of arithmetic is interesting and reminds me of a guy I know.

    Apparently he has some sort of synesthesia where numbers have personalities and respective genders. I don’t remember exactly he said, but it was something like 3 and 4 being best friends (male and female), 5 and 6 being married (also male and female), and there were others too but I just don’t remember them now.

    Curiously, 7 was an old uncle.

  3. TehShrike says:

    Thank you for this interesting post!

    Personally, I believe that males and females are inherently and naturally different in many ways.

    However, I would be loathe to assume that those differences should provide an excuse for either sex to opt-out of the beauty of math.

    As a young lad, I did not find math particularly enjoyable at first. The math books I was given to use did not explain the concepts very well (in my opinion). I was forced to reverse-engineer various principles by going over the few examples given in the book.

    It was difficult, but I did grow to love the feeling of mastering the concepts (as proved by my answers matching up with the answer key). I enjoyed the feeling of dominating something difficult.

    My sisters never grew to enjoy math – I don’t believe they ever gained much of a thrill from pushing through to finally grasp what the book was trying to teach them (poorly).

    Without making too many uneducated guesses at male/female psychology, I would tend to assume that the “rewards” of mathematics (as presented by many textbooks) appeal more often to males for some reason.

  4. Phil says:

    Try, if you haven’t yet, Susan Pinker’s The Sexual Paradox. She’s Stephen’s wife; it’s interesting reading. Steven’s The Blank Slate is next on my reading list.

    I personally believe that there are sex differences; in general men are better than women at maths, spatial reasoning & ‘systemising’; and women are much better than men at social interactions, verbal reasoning and concentrating. To be clear, these are statements about the statistical properties of groups and should not be used to make judgements about specific individuals.

  5. Nathan says:

    I always like to think of X as a double agent who works his side out and then swings over to the other side to fight off everyone with an equal sign.

  6. WT says:

    These stories were fascinating when I listened to them a few years back: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/220/testosterone/

    Anecdotally, one participant mentioned that when he started taking testosterone, his interest in math increased dramatically. I don’t recall the exact words he used to describe the experience, but the comment stuck with me.

  7. Rootboy says:

    I’ve come to find a pretty much 100% social explanations for the technical skills gender imbalance much more convincing than “biological” ones. Girls in the US don’t start to drop out of math until middle school, which is why McKellar targeted her book at that age group. And Asian countries don’t show the same divergence in math scores. At minimum, whatever biological effects are at work can be socialized away.

    I think we underestimate the degree to which people – especially children and teenagers – are sensitive to social cues about expected interests and behaviors. Math still has a pretty strong association with, if not masculinity, at least un-femininity. I think that many young girls pick up on that and modify their behavior accordingly. Or at least, they pick up on the fact that as girls they’re expected to care deeply about a number of sterotypically girly things – fashion, social relationships, domestic skills – and those are competing for scarce cognitive space; there might be a kind of crowding out effect.

    A similar example: For a long time I (a male) pretended I liked sports. Because my Dad liked sports, most of the men I encountered liked sports, and all the other boys at school liked and wanted to play sports. So I thought that liking sports was something I was supposed to do, and if I didn’t there was something wrong with me. I never really liked them, and now that I’m an adult I don’t pretend to be interested in them anymore. Similarly, I see a lot of social pressure against girls and math.

    Anyway, social science is hard and I’m far from an expert so this is mostly just my thoughts and musings. Good post.

    • ZachWeiner says:

      The one thing that Kelly and I found really convincing was this: Women have more pronounced hormonal cycles than men. If you look at the cycle, during higher testosterone times, the women tested had greater mathematical aptitude.

      Before reading that book I would’ve agreed with you completely. Now, I’m not so sure. Stuff like the above is difficult to explain through socialization alone.

      Of course, as many said, we’re talking in aggregate, not about individuals. Something like that has no bearing on how you should size up an individual male or female.

      • Aaron Golas says:

        I’m with Rootboy on this: female aversion to math and affinity for social behavior in our culture comes from social pressure, not biological sources. The evidence just isn’t convincing yet for a biological cause, whereas evidence of social causes seems pretty strong (for example, as noted, girls’ math performance depends on the culture they’re in).

        If you haven’t seen it yet, I’d recommend checking out Amanda Marcotte’s talk about sexism and rationalization at the latest Skepticon (the whole talk is really good, but the part dealing directly with math & engineering starts at 28:38): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X3xwwpnEPqA

        Or, if you’re looking for another book to read, Amanda highly recommends recently-published “Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference” by Cordelia Fine.

      • Rootboy says:

        Interesting. I’ve vaguely wanted to read that book for a while. Maybe I should kick it to the front of the queue.

        If what you say true I guess I should do a Bayesian update to bring my “pretty much 100%” down a little bit. Even if there are biological tendencies, but I think they’re massively reinforced by social expectations.

      • FB says:

        “We’re talking in aggregate, not about individuals.” Ok, but does it even explain the aggregate population distribution? Do hormone differences within a person’s body over time allow you to predict differences between individuals based on their average hormone levels? Do math geniuses tend to have more testosterone, and vice versa? If so, does the relation between math and testosterone remain the same between individuals as within individuals (same regression coefficient)?

        And what is the effect size? Suppose that there is a statistically significant difference between math performance of women at different times in their hormone cycle. How big is that difference? Is it big enough to account for a lot of the male-female difference, based on the known differences in their population hormone levels?

      • Baylink says:

        Hmm. Math skills may be closely hormonally linked, and girls start to drop out of math around middle school, eh?

        I sense a correlation there.

      • Jess says:

        What studies did Pinker pull to support the assertion that women have better math skills when they have higher testosterone? I’d want to read the study to see what alternative explanations were considered and how the study was designed (i.e. how did they handle possible testing effects?). It would be interesting if testosterone was administered as a treatment–would the performance effect persist if women in a test group received testosterone injections or supplements over a period of time? Do men with lower testosterone generally perform more poorly in math than men with high testosterone? What about women on hormonal contraceptives?

        I think that if sex differences in mathematical ability are difficult to explain through socialization it is because socialization is a massive, complex system that is difficult to define, control and test. There are many possible social / non-biological factors that could correlate with mathematical ability, and only a few of those factors have been explored. Biology is an easy sell, but only because it’s so easy to find correlations between biology & ability and then miss confounding variables because they’re hard to describe or isolate.

        To quote Anne Fausto-Sterling, “. . . from a physiological point of view, it makes little sense to measure a single hormone level–out of its hormonal context–and use that measurement to draw conclusions about a causal relationship with a particular behavior.”

  8. Sara Klips says:

    When I was a young girl my parents had me take piano lessons. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that the personalities that I had given to the notes weren’t something that I had been taught to do, but a method that I had created to help me learn. Some things have stuck with me: B was naturally rude, became angry and hurtful as B-flat, and could pretend to be C once in a while in an attempt to trick the other notes. D got along with everyone well enough except for F and C which would have to be on their best behavior around him. F was polite and friendly, though not as accepting as C was. F and B didn’t get along, but B’s neighbors didn’t understand why B didn’t like F. None of the keys were all that social and never got along with their immediate neighbor. The sounds were them talking. Harmonies were agreeable conversation while dissonances were arguments that didn’t usually last very long because some other key would come in and solve the problem. If you held down the pedal, you’d have to lift it at phrase endings because that was the only time that the keys could get a breath.
    It occurs to me now that a lot of the qualities that I assigned to particular keys were quite apt and helped me to be a better musician. If you hold down the pedal too long, music becomes muddy and you lose the ability to get clear tones out of keys. The key of B major has five sharps. Two notes next to each other never sound good together… and so on.

    I suspect that I had a lot of tools like this as a child. There are a number of moments that I do mental double-takes because of one of these. Every time I see South America on a map there is an instant of confusion because some part of me only recognizes South America as being pink.

    I know this doesn’t help with anything, but at least it is a bit more evidence for the strength in learning things as social situations.

    I hypothesize that social understanding is so important to develop early in life for human primates that it is something that evolution has drilled into our brains under the “enjoy” column in a fairly permanent manner. If we’re already inclined to learn this one thing as our primary developmental directive it makes sense that other (civilization-constructed) ideas easily fall by the wayside. Math hasn’t been an objective long enough to compete with social understanding on a chemical level. It makes sense to pair math up with the Prime Developmental Directive and use that as a learning tool to enhance comprehension.

  9. Anise says:

    Francie’s story is unbelievably familiar, you’re post has thrown me into a fit of nostalgia.

    When my parents divorced, my mom had to take up a full time office job with two elementary school children. This job required her to work on Saturdays, and we really couldn’t afford a babysitter, so I would go along with her. I really didn’t mind, her work had computers, which hardly anyone had at the time, and I was obsessed with typing.

    So I would get to sit down at the computer, with a simple text edit program open, a bunch of old school printer paper (you know, the kind with the holes down the side) and all the office supplies I could get my hands on. I knew the computer was a math driven thing, and that became the theme of my day. I would draw out the numbers 0-9 and give them faces, clothes and personalites. I too associated the low numbers as children and the higher numbers as adults. Then, in my text edit program, I would write wonderfully long and complicated stories about how these numbers would relate to each other, all based on the math I learned at school.

    Later, I became that girl who hated math. I was good at logic, I loved computers and I would sit and do object oriented programming for hours, but math seemed what everyone called it: hard.

    I don’t know why I don’t love numbers more now, but I’m happy that I loved them so much at one point :)

  10. Frank says:

    The one thing that seems to be assumed by many of the comments above, and even your article, is that math is stressed to male children as something they should be excited about or involved with, but it seems, at least to me, that the majority of children, male or female, are disinterested or at least neutral towards math.

    It tends to be the ‘nerds’ that are interested. The intellectuals. Perhaps I’m missing the point and this is already established, but math isn’t the most popular subject of study in young people at all.

    Just a point of view that I felt was missing.

    • Mike says:

      This is an important point that I am somewhat surprised seems to be overlooked, or prematurely discarded.

      The general trend and social pressure, at least where I live, is for math to be ridiculed in general as something “for nerds”. Perhaps the social pressure of math being “not for women” in terms of math is more of a social pressure “for nerds” – then you take the next logical step to considering the social construct of “who are nerds”? In general, “nerds” are male. Therefore, something “for nerds” just happens to be “not for women”, simply by association with a completely different non-specific social pressure.

      Is this variable considered at all, or is this a valid point?

  11. Erica says:

    Growing up, I had a lot of people (adults of both genders) tell me, when they learned what math I was doing in school, “pssh, you’re never going to actually need to know that, not unless you’re going to be an engineer or something.” And at that age, of course, we all thought of ‘engineer’ as being the train guy with the hat. There is obviously a lot of room for improvement for teaching basic math. I remember spending a lot of time on tedious long-division problems. Lots of work, not very interesting, and not particularly rewarding or exciting when you get the answer for the 100th time. Math was largely framed as “that subject that we all have to do even though it’s not really relevant to anything” and not so much as “a way of understanding the universe,” at least not until later on.

    The McKellar book isn’t going to solve all of these problems, but I think it has its audience. “Making math pink” isn’t going to work for everyone, but if it helps to get some girls to be more confident about math who otherwise wouldn’t have been, then that’s a positive thing.

    In elementary school, math was always this weird, abstract thing, but Science class was always a lot of fun. Sea creatures! Yo-yos and legos! Turning plants different colors! The things we were learning about were very real. If more of this had made its way into teaching math (e.g. ‘you can use math to make cool things, or to find interesting patterns in the world!’) then it would have been a lot more interesting. Word problems didn’t really cut it.

  12. JRM says:

    I think the evidence for a substantial biological component to some of these skills is very strong.

    More bridge players are female than male. At the top end, you’ve got fiercely competitive people – but of the top 100 bridge players in the world, I’d suggest no fewer than 99 are guys.

    The very top engineers skew very heavily male; more heavily than mid-level engineers.

    In my opinion, the idea that there aren’t inherent gender differences is quite socially appealing. But I don’t think it’s true. And I think the evidence against that hypothesis provides both data supporting it, and reasons for biological dominance by one gender in these fields.

    This does not mean that environmental factors don’t exist; they do.

    (FWIW, my wife is a former engineer with a master’s in math; she now teaches.)

    –JRM

    Aside: Men are also much, much, much more prolific at violent crime. I am completely convinced this is primarily due to biological bases of behavior.

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  14. NoNameForNow says:

    I will just put these links here:
    http://arstechnica.com/old/content/2008/06/why-judy-cant-add-gender-inequality-and-the-math-gap.ars
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2679077/
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17201785
    In short, society expects different things from boys and girls, and this causes girls to perform worse in math.
    Also, girls are either less attracted to certain areas (or less competitive), or they are not expected to excel in certain areas, which causes a low percentage of women in these areas, which makes women seem less successful than men in those areas.

  15. JW says:

    It seems like it might be a useful thing to ask some female mathematicians or math majors or even just women who like math what made them interested in the first place. I came to math through logic problems which I found fun and interesting, rather than through social applications or story-making.

    One article that I read suggested that people who do well in math or computing science are able to think about problems in a more abstract fashion — to treat it as a game with its own rules rather than to be continually looking for connections with the real world which might not exist. I’d have to see some more substantial research in this direction before I based an education system on it, but it does make one wonder whether trying to connect math to real life might not be the best approach to teach kids. After all, lots of kids grasp the rules of chess without having to understand it as some kind of war simulation first.

  16. Anne says:

    When I was growing up, I had a younger brother. We both picked up that math was “for nerds,” but we were both OK with being nerds, so we didn’t mind much. When I got interested in math, my father and my grandparents sat down with me and “discussed my future”. During this “discussion” they told me that women could not do math, because we are biologically predisposed to be motherly, and mothers did not need to know linear algebra or calculus.

    When my brother became interested in math, my father and grandparents started pushing him towards becoming an aeronautical engineer.

    I am currently a computer scientist, mostly because my mother told my father to stop that nonsense.

  17. Baylink says:

    I don’t think you’re being “stupid”… but on the McKellar point, my view is that while it would (/will) be a good thing to start earlier, and fix a different problem to avoid the one Danica’s aiming at, *she is aiming at a problem* *that we do have*.

    You know she has an Erdos-Bacon number, BTW, right? :-)

    If it makes you feel better about her books, think “MTV math”. Or “first, you have to get the mule’s attention”. :-)

  18. OviouslyAFakeName says:

    While I do agree that there is some sort of predisposition of women against math (either biological or social), I do not believe the problem will be solved by painting the number ’4′ pink.

    Mathematics is the pursuit of the abstract, the shedding of the entrapments of reality. It requires work and is not easy. One of the greatest virtues of mathematics is to teach people how to think and generalize in abstract manners.

    Artificially colouring and sweetening math takes the students away from the abstract, away from what is truly important in mathematics. That is not to say that mathematics should live in an island. From time to time math MUST bridge towards reality (this is especially important at the beginning, when learning something new and different), but the emphasis must be placed on moving away from the mundane realities and into the abstract worlds.

    I personally believe the poor performance of girls in mathematics is more due to motivation than anything else. The real issue is how to motivate girls (and boys, most of them also hate math for some reason), without loosing what makes math such a useful skill for everyone, from the humble janitor to the brilliant scientist.

  19. Jess says:

    I think you might like to read Gene Worship by Gisela Kaplan and Lesley Rogers (http://www.amazon.ca/Gene-Worship-Gisela-Kaplan/dp/1590510348/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1296876133&sr=8-1) and/or Myths of Gender by Anne Fausto-Sterling (http://www.amazon.ca/Myths-Gender-Biological-Theories-Revised/dp/0465047920/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1296876208&sr=1-2). If nothing else, these books might give you a new angle to refute or explore. Full disclosure–I have a huge science hard-on for Anne Fausto-Sterling. I’m totally biased.

    I don’t recommend Susan Pinker’s The Sexual Paradox. I was able to pick it apart as a first year undergrad–it’s not good science or good thinking. It’s about as solid as a Daily Mail article about a study on why women like pink.

  20. Jane says:

    As a woman who does love mathematics and who has girlfriends who also love math and work in the feild, we all have a love of games in common. When we get together we play games (video, cards, board, w/e).

    There’s another interesting way to relate dolls to math that’s best explained in the book Bellweather by Connie Willis.

    In this book, which is worth reading on its own merits, there is a scene where a little girl is playing with her barbies and then graphing the interactions and activities. Teal represented beach barbie, and a zig zag line reperesnted her wearing high heels. Her blue zig zag line was parallel with a yellow line to show she went with that barbie. This information packed graph acted as an inspiration to the protoganist of the story, so I’ll stop discussing it lest I give away anything.

  21. Diana says:

    I know this discussion was a while ago, but I’m delighted to discover that Francie’s exploration of mathematics EXACTLY mirrors mine as a young girl. Well, not exactly. I thought 5 was controlling and arrogant, making all the other numbers just like him, 6 was nearly as bad, and seven was the first one to come along who’d let the others show their own individuality. 7 consequently, became my favorite number. I always felt that 9 was somewhat weak and leaned on the others for support due to that whole the sum of the results equals 9 thing. I’ve always found it difficult to “think” in math but am lightening fast with literature. 99th percentile, 800′s and 5′s in every testable English based exam.
    I do think there are different types of brains, though I don’t believe I represent the female average. I suspect the best teaching accommodates multiple types of learning, which then begets complicated questions as to feasibility of group instruction on the scale of most public classrooms. I guess we have to come in somewhere between practicality and intention.

  22. Luke says:

    Another comment on a long-passed post, however I couldn’t resist sharing the image I got while reading the original article of Zack joining a “Dolly Tea Party” with his hypothetical daughters, and introducing an over-the-top prisoner’s dilemma in the style of his videos! It made me laugh!

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