Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Math in the Media: Stereotype Threat?

How often we are in Mathematics faced with the fact that our profession was, and still is, quite female-starved;  that boys and men are thought to be better at math than girls and women (an amazingly ridiculous thought, given my view up here!).  So many recent studies seem to point decidedly at the dangerous effects of a person's perceptions of ability at the moment of evaluation and how easily they can affect performance.  For example, reminding students of a stereotype they conform to just before taking a math test tends to degrade performance.  This slow drip of research exposing the damaging effects of culture bias and preconceptions on lack of ability can only have a good effect in the long run.  And I do see here at Hopkins some light in the form of a general welcoming attitude and positive outreach to students studying higher mathematics regardless of gender.  But it does seem that this huge ship turns only very slowly.

Over at the online newspaper, the Huffington Post, Cailin O’Connor, a Professor of the Philosophy of Science at the University of California, Irvine, details some of the evidence that runs contrary to the notion of an innate gender bias in mathematical ability here:
Are Women Worse at Math?  It's Time to Stop Asking
Her take?   Perhaps it is time to stop focusing on looking for innate differences between the genders in mathematical ability and start simply addressing the cultural barriers that keep the gender balances way too tilted to one side. 

I agree, but still love seeing the rising tide of evidence condemning the idea that math is more a male thing.  Geez!


Evelyn said...

I also agree. I thought Neil DeGrasse Tyson was spot on ( before we have that conversation, let's fix the societal issues that keep people other than white men out of these fields. Then if we still care, we can try to figure out whether there are some small differences in aptitudes between genders or races.

Personally, I don't get much joy out of seeing the rising tide of evidence against the idea that men are better at math because it feels like if some study found differently, that would be justification for not trying to make things better for women. Honestly, even if men are better than women at math, which I don't believe, we still need to treat those women who do math as well as we treat men, which we don't now.

Richard Brown said...

Absolutely, Evelyn. And thanks for the citation! But I still see value in the rising numbers of scholars taking up the Stereotype Threat and related issues here, even if they are coming at it from different angles. For example, I do not posses the social scientist skills to perform a well-designed study to measure a possible gender bias. But I am well-positioned to help break down any local cultural barriers to access and success in mathematics for women (and men) in underrepresented groups, at least here at Hopkins.

Plus, IMHO, it does not hurt the argument that the culture needs to change when one well-argues that culture-based stereotypes are not supported by scientific study, at least in the large.

To use the words of Neil Degrasse Tyson, one of the many ways TO help fix the societal issues that keep people other than white men out of science fields, is to expose the fallacies in our cultural thinking via studies. As only one prong in the coordinated attack, I do see it as a productive one.

Thank you much for the comments!