Our Society's Inability To Understand Girls And Women As Mathematical Thinkers

I miss mathematics. I miss the satisfaction of working a problem to completion or writing an elegant mathematical proof. While I would not trade my current career as a women's and gender studies professor for life as a mathematician, there are times when I am tempted to enroll in linear algebra again, just for the fun of it. And I do occasionally wonder what my life would have been like if I had chosen to pursue the study of mathematics.

Would I have made it through my graduate program? Would I have enjoyed teaching mathematics as much as I enjoy teaching feminist theory? The only thing that haunts me about my choice to pursue a doctorate in feminist studies instead of mathematics is that my choice was shaped, in part, by a culture that cannot reconcile who I am with my ability to engage in mathematical thinking.

I am raising two young daughters who love numeracy; I play number games with them and cultivate their interest in working with patterns and problem solving.

There is a lot that I can do as a parent to encourage my daughters to love mathematics and to understand themselves as mathematical knowers. But we still live in a world where a national children's clothing store, the Children's Place, made the decision to sell a T-shirt to young girls that shows a checklist declaring the checked items on the list to be "my best subjects."

Shopping, music, and dancing are checked. Math is the only subject not checked.

Just two years previously, Forever 21, a purveyor of clothing for teenagers and young adults, sold a women's T-shirt proclaiming the wearer to be "allergic to algebra."

The sale of both T-shirts generated outrage on social media sites. And both stores pulled the T-shirts from their racks soon after they appeared, and then issued apologies.

The public response to the sale of these T-shirts is encouraging. We nevertheless live in a world where retailers continue to think that T-shirts denigrating the mathematical abilities of girls and women are suitable to be offered for sale.

While girls and women have struggled with the stereotype that they are not as capable of achievement in mathematics, at least the problem has been visible and highly debated. If we are asking the question--Can girls succeed in mathematics?--then it is possible to answer yes.

But it's not always easy.

Consider the way the media struggle to portray successful mathematical author and actress Danica McKellar. In a variety of sources, from book reviews in major national newspapers, to interviews on NPR, to appearances on The Today Show, McKellar is almost never portrayed as a female mathematician. In fact, in most of these interviews, the subject of McKellar's mathematical success is avoided; the vast majority of the coverage tends to be on McKellar's identity as a child actress in The Wonder Years, recent photo shoots and other activities associated with her acting and modeling pursuits.

This approach is representative of our cultural inability to reconcile McKellar's identity as a woman with her success in mathematics. McKellar cannot be a mathematician precisely because she is too feminine; she does not fit our cultural understanding of what a mathematician should be.

This inability to understand girls and women as mathematical subjects is not surprising when we consider the role textbooks play in constructing mathematical subjectivity. While girls and women are equally represented in mathematics textbooks, they are rarely portrayed as successful mathematical knowers. In many mathematics textbooks, girls need help and ask questions while boys already know the solution and provide answers.

We can begin to understand how limited our vision of the mathematician is by looking closely at the stories we tell about the field. It is only when we identify those limitations that we can expand our ideas about who can engage with mathematics to ensure that more people can see themselves as mathematical knowers.

I want to be sure that as my daughters grow up they are able to find ways to engage with mathematics that encourage them to see themselves as daring mathematical thinkers. I look forward to the day when our society sheds its cultural inability to reconcile mathematical success with femininity.

Sara N. Hottinger is Professor of Women's and Gender Studies at Keene State College in New Hampshire and author of the new book Inventing the Mathematician: Gender, Race, and Our Cultural Understanding of Mathematics (2016 SUNY Press).