So I was asked during the break between the semesters to take part in an Intersession course designed to bridge the void between the sciences and the humanities (mind the gap!) by having professors from all stripes discuss common topics to a diverse audience. The idea is that each professor sees the topic from the perspective of their chosen field and the same topic often looks quite different to different people. It is a wonderful idea hatched and developed by Dr. Kristin Cook-Gailloud, the Director of the Program in French Language and Culture here at Hopkins. This is the second year running this course and I thoroughly endorse it. Alas, due to scheduling issues, I did not participate this year. But a topic in this year's course, Passages, stuck in my head. The idea of movement from one state to another is something innate to a mathematician, if regarded as movement from a state of ignorance and confusion to clarity and enlightenment.
So I wrote an essay to clarify my idea of passage in mathematics. It is here:
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:
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!