Unfiltered: Girls Vs. Boys At Math

  by  |  September 9th, 2009  |  Published in All, Blog

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"I could have been good at math…"

I was on the phone with my insurance agent the other day (don’t ask) and she asked what stories I am working on lately. I told her there’s a pretty interesting study coming out about gender and mathematics ability.

She remarked, "I could have been good at math."

She distinctly recalls being about nine years old and realizing that there was more to math than the basic computations she was learning in school, and that it made sense to her. "But when I got to algebra, the teacher went too fast and I got lost, and there was no one to help me understand it, and that was it," she said.

"Unfiltered" is a recurring series where ScienCentral reporters give their personal thoughts on the stories they produce. This installment is based on the news story "Girls Vs. Boys At Math."

I wonder how many women have similar recollections.

I had one recently when I had the opportunity to see one of my former college math professors after more than two decades. I was a chemistry major but felt that the core requirements were not challenging enough and got permission to replace some of them with some elective courses in advanced mathematics. I recall there being one other woman in those courses, a math major, but she eventually disappeared, leaving me as the only female, as well as the only student without a whole lot of math background in these classes full of math and physics majors.

By attending every minute of the professor’s office hours, attacking every problem in the textbook whether it was assigned or not, and poring over "Tables of Integrals and Other Mathematical Data," I began to "get" it. My triumphant moment came after puzzling and puzzling over a homework problem, putting it aside, and the next morning waking up thinking that if I simply divided everything by cotangent, I could eliminate some 20 steps in solving a particular integral.

When my professor saw my homework, he said, "I liked your trick." I beamed. A couple of weeks later, he mentioned, "I used your trick in one of my research papers." I beamed even more.

It never occurred to me to ask if he had given me credit. And it apparently never occurred to him to encourage me to pursue mathematics beyond taking those electives.

As I drove to the campus to visit after all those years, I remembered, and wondered to myself if that could happen today. I considered asking him if he remembered, too, but he was so happy to see me that I didn’t have the heart to taint our meeting with a "guilt trip." I did tell him that I sometimes regretted not continuing to pursue math or chemistry, and that I hope he is an advocate and ally to females pursuing those disciplines.

And I shared that in my class of chemistry majors, I don’t know of a single woman who is working as a scientist today, even though we girls invariably had the highest grades.

In fact, I’m not aware of any women from my all-girl high school class who are working scientists today, not even the one who scored perfect SAT’s and decided she had had enough after a hard-won master’s degree in her favorite science.

Obviously, this wasn’t due to a lack of ability, talent or work ethic.

Another vivid memory that wasn’t always so vivid: A local chemical company had a summer jobs program for college students. I was assigned to a "chemical mix" lab, where chemical solutions were mixed to precise specifications to be used in product testing. I must have been the first girl to ever work in that department, because they didn’t have "lab whites" (similar to hospital scrub pants & shirt) to fit me, so I was issued a set of men’s smalls and had to "take them in" on my mom’s sewing machine.

The mixes were anywhere from 10 liters to 200 gallons, and to fill the 200 gallon tank they used a fire hose.

I thought I got along fine with all the guys until one day when a guy I’ll call "Meany" was filling the big tank and I happened to be standing in the middle of the open floor. All of a sudden the fire hose was blasting me and the next thing I knew, I was soaked from head to toe and the guys were hooting, whistling and hollering, "Look at those legs!" and other remarks I don’t care to print.

My reaction? "It’s not funny! I don’t have another pair of whites!" Yep, my immediate concern was that none of the stacks of clean, dry whites in men’s sizes were an option for me to change into and continue the day’s work. I still don’t recall how I solved that dilemma.

At the end of the summer, I had an "exit interview" with a female supervisor. In the course of our conversation, I told her about the lab whites and the fire hose.

She told me that was sexual harassment, and that I didn’t have to put up with it. When she told me that, I cried.

She didn’t tell me that I could and should have gotten an attorney. She told me if I ever needed a job recommendation I could use her name, and wished me luck.

I actually buried this incident for many years, until long after I tired of the hostile environment of chemistry in general and opted for science journalism. Then one day in 1991, my sister and I were watching the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas, and there was Anita Hill being questioned about how she could possibly have tolerated her alleged harassment and failed to speak out about it for so long.

My sister and I are twins, but I doubt it was a "twin" moment because zillions of other women may have had a similar epiphany. I instantly recalled the traumatic shame and sadness of being hosed down on the job, while my sister simultaneously recalled being literally chased around the desk of one of her writing professors.

Neither of us had ever mentioned these incidents to each other, our twin sister!

We had simply persevered in the task at hand, and hoped for a good recommendation in the future. Could that still happen today?

I’m not equating not having been taken seriously or encouraged enough in math with being the object of a cruel, involuntary, wet-lab-whites contest.

But I suspect that a whole spectrum of experiences like these account for the outrage among women scientists sparked by Lawrence Summers’ ill-informed remarks in January 2005, and the conviction that he was speaking for an entire culture of men and even women who may still not "get it."


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  1. Girls Vs. Boys at Math | ScienCentral | Science Videos | Science News says:

    June 1st, 2009 at 3:35 pm (#)

    [...] Joyce Gramza’s personal thoughts on reporting and producing this story, in Unfiltered: Girls Vs. Boys At [...]

  2. Naps and Creativity | ScienCentral | Science Videos | Science News says:

    June 8th, 2009 at 3:11 pm (#)

    [...] is something that, anecdotally, you hear a lot about people who’ve been working on a problem, they put it aside, they go [...]

  3. SeventhGraderInAlgebraNamedPaula says:

    November 3rd, 2009 at 8:09 pm (#)

    D; I’m sorry about the hose incident! What a horrible thing! Teachers these days… :)

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