Or, how Mia stopped whining and started subverting the patriarchy by asserting her mathematical abilities.

It was perhaps inevitable that our conversation about neurosexism would lead to a personal story on the subject of A Lady And Her Struggles With Mathematics. What Cordelia Fine posits in Delusions of Gender – and what I’m apt to agree with – is that women are just as capable as men of excelling in math. Or the hard sciences. Or whatever other subjects conversational wisdom has us believe is the domain of male brains. Sisters are doin’ it – math! – for themselves.

Story time: In my freshman year of college, I got an A in my required math course, accompanied by a letter from the math department asking if I had considered making the subject my minor. “Joke’s on you, nerds.” I thought, “Because I’m not actually good at math.” Pretty biting. Except, would someone who isn’t good at math get an A with relative ease?

I’m not gloating – really! It’s just that I had been laboring under the delusion that I was bad at math for nearly a decade. And not even an easily won A and the kind words of a university math department could convince me otherwise, until I read Fine’s book. You see, at the end of third grade, I remember my teacher threw in a lesson on long division, “for fun” or what have you. It was a quick lesson, just a taste of what was to come in fourth grade, and I decidedly Did Not Understand.

And you have to realize that, until this point, my academic record was spotless. I loved school – probably because it was so easy for me. I mean, I read constantly, I wrote short stories. Plays, even! And, eight year old that I was, I didn’t see the correlation between reading for fun and doing well academically. I just thought English – always posed as the opposite of math, perhaps to every one’s detriment – came naturally to me. So, when faced with the prospect of working for my grades, I freaked out for approximately the next nine years and contented myself with being bad at math.

As Lindsay discussed last week, women can be subject to something called stereotype threat, which means that even filling in that “female” bubble at the beginning of a standardized math test can negatively impact your score. Because, of course, women approach math knowing the expectations for them are low.

It’s not that I thought men were inherently better at math. I had tons of competent female math teachers over the years, and I saw other female students do well in our classes. The problem was, that with every poor grade, every moment of confusion, there was someone – and that someone was almost always a women – telling me, “Don’t worry, I was never good at math either.” So the message I took away was that girls can do math, but no one expects greatness from us. It was perfectly acceptable for me to falter in math because I was a girl and was too busy reading Jane Austen novels and empathizing with others anyway. In my mind, my successes with math – and I’d like to note for the record that I did quite well in high school geometry – weren’t part of a larger, if slightly muddled, pattern of understanding; they were flukes.

Gendering school subjects does everyone a huge disservice – women especially. Because, let’s face it, “female” subjects aren’t the ones that generally lead to good-paying jobs. Not that money’s everything! But, come on. Even when neuroscientists throw us gals a bone by telling us we’re “inherently good at” important subjects like Empathizing or English, we all know that “male” subjects like Math or Science pay better and garner more respect.

As Fine writes, studies have shown that women who work in mathematical fields do their best to fit in with their male colleagues. They often not only “shed” superficial feminine markers like wearing makeup, but they may also display aggressively anti-female attitudes, because they’ve seen that women and math don’t mix, that to be female in math is a liability. Indeed, femaleness is a liability in any field or in any position of power. Fine’s cheery findings:

Unlike men in the same position, women leaders have to continue to walk the fine line between appearing incompetent and nice and competent but cold. Experimental studies find that, unlike men, when they try to negotiate greater compensation they are disliked. When they try out intimidation tactics they are disliked. When they succeed in a male occupation they are disliked. When they fail to perform the altruistic acts that are optional for men, they are disliked. When they do go beyond the call of duty they are not, as men are, liked more for it. When they criticize, they are disparaged. Even when they merely offer an opinion, people look displeased.

All of this is a way of saying that it’s no wonder so many women avoid boy’s clubs like math or boy’s clubs like almost ever other institution on earth. It’s not neuroscience! It’s not our puny brains! It’s that tenacious belief that Men and Women Are Made For Different Roles Because They Are And, Whoops, Women’s Roles Just Happen to Be Less Cool and Less Rewarding.

While liberating ourselves from neurosexism can be a little overwhelming – I mean, I could potentially be good at everything, guys – it’s also really refreshing. I’ve been reexamining my perceived skill set and am going to continue referring to myself as “handy” until male acquaintances stop snickering. And if anyone asks, I’m at least decent at math.

Advertisements