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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Math and Gender Bias

Christina Sommers's Forbes article, Gender Bias Bunk, brings back memories of the time my department chairman called me into his office to ask me, "Why does the dean say you are crazy?" I had not been prowling through the sewer systems nor consulting with imaginary secret agents, but I did know how I had led the dean to doubt my sanity.

The previous week, the Mathematics Department faculty had attended a meeting organized by the Women's Studies Program. The topic of the meeting was how to introduce women's studies material into the mathematics curriculum. The idea was ludicrous to the Math faculty, and certainly none of us was inclined to honor the request. More interesting than the formal meeting was the mingling and discussion that preceded it. The director of Women's Studies approached a group of mathematicians and asked us whether we thought women were inherently less able to do mathematics than men, and if so, what should be done about it. I responded that there were many excellent female mathematicians and that the rate at which women entered mathematics continued to accelerate. It seemed likely (as has subsequently been borne out) that the number of women in mathematics would continue to grow.

The director appeared to be disturbed by my answer, and she followed up with a hypothetical: "Suppose it were true that women were inherently less able to do mathematics than men. What should we do?" "Nothing," I replied. "No," she said. "If men were inherently better at mathematics than women, then society must devalue mathematics." We were dumbfounded.

Later that week, I sent the dean an old Commentary article on the negative impact of the women's studies program on the intellectual climate at Kenyon College. I was a recently hired assistant professor, and that was my first dealing with the dean. (I had been hired during the tenure of the prior dean). The next day he told my chairman I was crazy. In retrospect, if not crazy, perhaps I was a bit foolish, but as I noted in a previous post, personal politics does not seem to affect hiring and tenure in Mathematics.

So, how can you distinguish between a liberal dean and a conservative mathematician in academe? The liberal dean thinks it is crazy to read Commentary. The conservative professor thinks it is crazy to think you should - or can - remove mathematics from our modern mathematically sophisticated world in order to rectify perceived biological inequities.


  1. I get tired of women who whine that there needs to be more women in math/science. I say to them, well, you're a woman. Why aren't you doing math?

    Generally, because they're no good at it.


    In any case, speaking as a refugee from academia, now I recommend to other women to come to corporate life. You don't have to deal with undergrads [though sometimes you have to deal with sales and marketing], and you have a much more sane working schedule. Oh, and you can make lots more money.

    Come to the dark side....[I'm an actuary. This life has treated me pretty well.]

  2. "If men were inherently better at mathematics than women, then society must devalue mathematics."

    Did you ask what would happen if women were inherently better at mathematics? Would the answer be: "If women were inherently better at mathematics than men, then society must increase the value mathematics."