Tuesday, January 18, 2005

I'm just a girl!

I, for one, am not at all shocked by Larry Summer's much-maligned statements on women in math & science. While he claims to have cutting-edge research to support his view that women are genetically predispositioned to suck at calculus, I am relatively certain that the original source for his views is the little girl in my honors math class in college. Because this is where I first heard this theory espoused by someone of purported intellect.

This was one of my rare visits to this math course, falling as it did right after my bartending shift at the Cactus, and although this was a 2pm class, I was inevitably bollocksed at this point and slowly tottering to nap on the soft, warm earth in the vicinity of South Mall. Or if I wasn't drunk, I'd inevitably run into someone on the way to this class, and we'd say, "It's raining! Let's go get a beer." or: "It's too nice a day! Let's go get a beer." or: "Does your nose itch? Cause mine does. Better go get a beer." (This is why we're glad that Sue entered the Real World prior to applying to graduate school. She had to develop a work ethic. Also: detox.) Thank God for grade inflation is all I have to say.

Anyway, back to math is hard.

One day, I went to class. And somewhere inbetween non-euclidean geometry and set theory, our professor stopped to ask us why we thought that there weren't more women represented in the upper echelon of the math world: department heads, academies of maths or whatever, etc. I did the quick calc in my head and figured, okay, so these math gurus are probably in their 60s at min, so they probably went to school in the early 1950s or 60s, when women were just starting to really make their presence felt in higher education at all... Probably we'll see these numbers correct themselves over time to some degree as more recent generations of mathemeticians become more prominent in their field, etc. I didn't think of other factors that have been ably mentioned by the many people now commenting on this topic, but that one seemed pretty satisfying to me at the time. (As a bonus: it also helps explain the equally pernicious but less blogosphere-debated hot-button topic of gender gap in symphony orchestras. Seriously.)

Anyway, because I've been oppressed by the patriarchy into keeping my mouth shut, I didn't offer my opinion. Luckily, a sweet young thing in the front row with Shirley Temple curls shot her little hand up, and this young woman who was a member of the honors program and thus the very cream of the intellectual crop at our university, announced that "Girls' brains are different from boys'." In the seat next to her a little pony tail bobbed up and down excitedly, "Yeah, it's true. Plus, women want to have babies so they can't, like, research."

I mean, Summers to a tee, right? I was aghast at the time. Is the best answer they could think of? I wondered. Did the last 50 years just not happen? Are these the critical thinking skills we're imparting to young women at our university? Should I have pointed towards my anecdotal evidence that beer is what makes girls bad at math? The point is, I've already been deadened to the shock of this line of thinking: Larry, you're just totally derivative of my colleague, Shirley Temple Head.


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