The math person myth

I have been tutoring my sister about basic math for TPA exam. The story goes all the same, most of the time she struggle with math to the point where I feel that how can one not know such basic things? It’s either she forgot the concept behind it or she’s not careful enough. Turns out my sister is not alone.

There is common stereotype among men and women that women generally are bad at basic math. And what I mean with basic math are those skills of algebra, trigonometry, logical deduction, or maybe a bit of calculus. That might be the reason why less and less women pursue education and career in math or STEM field. I was curious to see why and when it all started? If women were not born with math inability (of course they are not), when did they see themselves failing? In fact, as far as I can remember back in primary school it was quite the opposite, of all friends who were good at math were girls -and they are excel at other subjects too. According to one article in Psychology Today, things get flipped around during adolescences time.

Most of us, especially in adolescence, want very much to be romantically desirable. Girls in particular are socialized to see this as an important goal, and both sexes attempt to achieve the goal by conforming to cultural norms of what women and men are “supposed” to be like. Women are expected to be communal and nurturing, and to pursue careers that allow them to express those qualities – like teaching, counseling, and of course, nursing. Men, on the other hand, are supposed to be dominant, independent, and analytical – qualities well-suited to business, finance, and science.

That was not surprising especially in this hyper-connected time where girls turned being adult faster than ever -thanks to the romantic movies and social media hype. My preposition if the above hypothesis holds true is the earlier girls enter their adolescence, the earlier they believe that math is just not for them. While it’s true that women are wired to be wanted and desired, what is not true is the assumption of qualities behind of being wanted. That being math and science nerd is mutually exclusive with other womanly type. I tell you, they are not. Two years ago, when I pictured my ideal type of women, she would be an intelligent, polymathic book-lover, cultured and with PhD in math or science, and funny. Well today I realize my fiancee is having lesser qualities than those. But she’s great!

Now can the situation change? Of course. Carol Dweck, in her book Growth Mindset, presented two alternatives belief about one’s ability and intelligence.

  1. You have certain amount of intelligence, and you really can’t do much to change it.
  2. You can always greatly change how intelligent you are.

While I belief that there are few prodigy kids in math or other fields who were fortunate to start doing what they are doing since very early, and there is no way I can be smarter than Terence Tao for instance. But Dwecks idea is not about who is better than who. It’s about answering this question “how can I become an inch better in this skill today than yesterday?”. I care about this issue because I belief that math is very important skill as much as reading and writing for children regardless of their career they later pursue. A good foundation in math would make any future intellectual pursuits easier. And to women of today who think math is not for them, think about what would you pass down your children to believe about this very important skill, let alone to teach them.

I want to close this with the story of my early childhood who got introduced into math education -thanks to my mom and my dad too. One of the heartbreaking story I was told was, my mom knew she wanted to study math education in IKIP Surabaya (or UNESA as of today). She wanted to become high school math teacher. But she should face a high wall from her conservative parents, thought that college degree is expensive, long, and useless as for at the end she would end up being a housewife anyway. So she went to diploma, a much shorter degree, to become primary school teacher instead. Life was not always easy for her but the spirit to provide good education remain still. She purchased me lot of books. She was my first math teacher. And more importantly she introduced me that math is not that difficult.

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