Monday, February 28th 2005

posted @ 4:42 pm in [ ]

The truth is, I don’t have a heluva lot to say this week. I will add onto what I said last week, though. As I wrote to my mom (and then to my auntie) earlier today (amazing how many folks are just right on the same wavelength…), here is something of a response to the Larry Summers controversy, which, let’s face it, really should not be a controversy of ANY KIND.

For those of you who don’t feel that stuff that goes on at Harvard has a whole lot of bearing on your life, I will fill you in. As quoted by my auntie: “Cambridge, Mass. — Harvard University President Lawrence Summers apologized Wednesday for his remarks last week suggesting that ‘innate differences’ make women less capable of succeeding at math and science than men. …In a letter to the university’s standing committee on women, Summers wrote, ‘I deeply regret the impact of my comments and apologize for not having weighed them more carefully.’”

So coverage of this stunning stuff has been all over the alumni e-newsletter and the alumni rag, as well as on NPR. Fortunately, the faculty are loudly denouncing him, which is nice. I’d like to point out that if Summers didn’t (ostensibly) have a penis, he would be out of a job at this point. I’ll tell you what gives me some hope, though: I had the distinct pleasure this week of watching yet another instance in which this battle is very nearly over. Really, we just have to keep doing what we’re doing, remember that laugher repels bullsht, and wait for a few old fcks to die.

Every year, the Communications department at DU has a big ol’ summit where they have all kinds of donors and distinguished guests and industry professionals and what-not. It is quite a gala event, and a lot of fun to attend. The distance learning course I work on is always one of the (rightly) lauded sessions–we typically get a bunch of people to come and watch or sit in. This year, one of the guys whose name was embossed on the podium where Sam Donaldson was speaking the night before came to sit in. He made a disparaging comment about Hilary Clinton, and SEVERAL young women stood up to him, commenting that a lot of men were frightened of strong, powerful women and that it was both ignorant and sad. They ate his lunch (amusingly, after they literally ate his dinner the night before).

I think we have won. Right behind me is a generation of women who are confident in their equality if not superiority. They are not going to accept 93 cents on the male-earned dollar and consider it significant progress like women my age did when we entered the workforce. They are not going to take crap from their bosses or wear things that please men and not themselves. They do not let stupid comments slide with a roll of the eyes. And they laugh when asked if they’re capable of doing math as well as a man. It’s not even an issue to them. In the next 10 years, we will have record numbers of women scientists and mathematicians, and it’s only going to grow from there. Better yet, the men their age are enlightened enough to like it.

So, I would invite Larry Summers to kiss my ass, but I would never defile such a fabulous asset in that way. My ass, I mean.

Monday, February 21st 2005

Are boys better at math than girls?
posted @ 9:21 am in [ ]
I recently had a transatlantic argument with a colleague about the relative mathematical abilities of the sexes. Let me preface this argument by stating my own impressions and experiences right up front.

First, I do think men and women are different, and that the chemical and biologial differences between them do sometimes create behavioral differences. However, I think most behavioral differences that we see are cultural: that men and women are taught to behave certain ways according to their respective genders, by their upbringings, or by society, or whatever. For example, when I lived in Los Angeles, I was the only woman I knew who pumped her own gas. Are women somehow incapable of pumping their own gas? Hell no. Is it something to do with the tides or the Pacific Time Zone? Uh-uh. It had to do with a social norm in that particular time and place–a social norm I disregarded because I wasn’t of that particular time and place–I was an outsider and I did things according to the social norms of what I knew. I find that, not having been raised to be “ladylike” or “feminine” so much as being raised to be a self-sufficient person, I am frequently missing pieces of gender programming that women around me seem to have. So to me, the artificial social aspect of said programming really jumps out at me.

Second, I have my own experience as an example. I am old enough to have been told in school that boys were good at math and girls were good at English. In retrospect, I was pretty okay at math. I always had great mathematical instincts, but was occasionally sloppy with computation, and I wasn’t very confident. Also, being very operationally minded, algebra was annoying to me because I couldn’t figure out what the hell it DID and the teacher would never tell us. Had each concept been introduced with a possible application or two, I think I would have done a lot better at algebra in school. As it was, my math teachers would just sort of shake their heads and tell me in an only slightly more enlightened way not to worry my pretty little head about it.

I didn’t take math in college because I didn’t have to, and I didn’t have to take it in my master’s program, either. It wasn’t until I did a brief pre-doc stint at the American University in Washtington, D.C. that I was obliged to take a statistics class. I had been messing with chaos theory for a year or so at that point, and I understood the concepts well enough. I was also quite good at stats, because I understood probability and forecasting, although I suspect I didn’t understand it in the same way it was being taught. In any case, I got an A, even though I hated it and did a really hack-off job. That was when it hit me that I was actually pretty good at math–I had just had crappy, patronizing, sexist math teachers as a kid.

It was too late for me at that point to begin taking physics classes for a career or anything, which in some ways I regret a little. But it certainly wasn’t too late for me to learn physics. I looked up stuff in my chaos books that I didn’t have the background to “get” and would chase down those theorems and explanations and teach myself. Reading physics was not harder than reading Chaucer, regardless of the fact that I had ovaries. I got it. A couple of years ago, I even gave a presentation at a conference that was sort of a marriage of philosophy and physics. I formulated my own mathematical theories based on my own impressions of how I thought it should work, and asked a lot of questions of people who had had a lot more formal training than I had. What I was doing might have been unusual, but it wasn’t wrong.

So the colleague with whom I disagreed about the nature of the male and female brain and mathematics was at this talk. I like him very much and I have a lot of respect for him as a colleague and as a scholar. Originally, he came to me with a really neat theory about the need to balance the sexes in religion and ritual, which I thought was cool. In the course of getting him to talk more about it, though, he made some comments to the effect that the male aesthetic had brough the world all this technological process, and that a matriarchy wouldn’t have done such a thing. I may be misreading him here, but the image I got in my head was one of the men out plundering, killing, inventing, driving history forward, and the women at home tending the hearth, their minds devoid of contribution or innovation.

Now, I think there is a pretty major difference between historical disinterest and lack of ability. It’s not that women didn’t have ideas; they just had no real forum in which to get attention for those ideas. Repression and lack of ability are worlds apart, so I found my colleague’s comments really puzzling. I thought I must have gotten it wrong, so I pressed him further. It came out that his impression was that men are driven and good at mathematics and women are passive and bad at mathematics. Buh?!

His evidence came from three places: studies, which he was sort of vague about–I couldn’t tell what their scientific value was exactly; the number of women who choose mathematics as a career vs. the number of men who do; and test scores of schoolchildren. Now, I can’t speak to the studies, but the two latter items have to do, in my DIRECT experience, with cultural gender instruction and expectation. Yes, the fact that I am not a physicist is indeed linked directly to the fact that I am a woman, but it is not because as a woman I am mentally not good at physics. It is because as a young girl I was shoved off that path by the weird cultural ideas of my teachers. This affected both my career choices and my test scores. It’s like saying Indian Brahmans are inherently predisposed toward cooking. They’re not–it’s just that under the Indian caste system, one cannot eat something prepared by someone from a lower caste than oneself, so the people of the uppermost caste (Brahmans) can prepare food for anyone. It is socially useful to have many Brahman cooks, that’s all–that way everyone can eat. The rational explanation is social, not physiological.

My colleague was also under the impression that men were more organized, systematic thinkers than women. I told him no woman who has ever lived with a man would EVER concede such a bizarre notion. Most women I know juggle work, some sort of school or other enriching pursuit, run a household (even if it’s a household of one), indulge outside interests, have some sort of physical fitness regimen, keep in touch with friends and family, etc. Most men I know are frequently suffering from Male Object Blindness (Honey, where are my shoes? They’re in the closet, dear. I looked in there. Are they on your feet? Oh. Never mind.); can’t juggle multiple things in their lives for more than a week or two without the help of a staff; when they manage their time, it’s because they’re rigid, not because they’ve planned it out to suit their lives well; have a hard time planning projects; and tend toward an entropic frat house state of squalor. Futhermore, the truly mentally organized men I know are often sort of… effete.

I am very organized, I manage to give attention to dozens of projects and aspects of my life at once, and I approach complex tasks in an organized, systematic way. I did wonder briefly if I had learned that last specific task from my father, who taught me a lot about problem solving; if his “male” sensibilities had sort of leaked into my approach. Then I remembered how I used to sort my toys and had definite ideas of categorization and spatial orderliness. “No,” my father said, “you pretty much did that kind of thing all by yourself.” Besides, his workspace is a morass. Mine has discrete piles, and I periodically file them and clear them away.

I also told my colleague about my great-grandmother, who had been a sort of mathematical and linguistic savant, able to speak multiple languages and pick other ones up very quickly, and who used to help my grandfather and his brothers with their math homework. Even hearing stories about her, I understood immediately how it worked. I have that same stuff loaded on the hard drive. I’ll wager she was good at music, too. She also apparently had a hellacious drinking problem, although that entire side of my family are unusually light drinkers. I suspect she drank from sheer frustration. Gifted with a great mind, she had no outlet and little stimulation.

Here’s the thing, though: either I, and Gran’ma Elizabeth, and others, are unusual or we’re not. If we are, it firmly discounts the theory that there is something inherently within the female mind that precludes mathematical talent, as female minds apparently can also come equipped with said talent. Further, what is unusual about me from a gender role perspective is my lack of feminine coaching–that is, the socializing toward feminine suckiness at math ultimately didn’t take. That suggests that it’s the socialization that causes the perception, and not the other way around. If we are not unusual, the theory is likewise blown.

Furthermore, mathematics is not innate, like breathing or needing to eat or sleep. It’s an artificial language that must be taught. My colleague argues that mathematical forms are present in nature, but I believe that it is our perception of those forms that informs mathematics. If we didn’t have ten fingers, would our numbering system be base 10? If our perceptions were different, our mathematics would be profoundly different, or perhaps not even exist at all. It’s a human construction, a human enterprise, meant to uncover mysteries and describe our perception of how things work. People create their gods, not the other way around. So how does one become innately good or bad at a skill that is learned and not innate at all?

Finally, there is some outstanding evidence that, now that social ignorance is beginning to lift, young women are about to balance out some of those odd perceptions. My students, in their late teens and early twenties, think it’s bizarre that I was told women weren’t good at math. They have never heard such a thing. Their male counterparts don’t seek to play boys-against-girls intellectual games because they believe they will get creamed. “In our other class, we played ‘Cranium’ boys against girls,” one male student was telling me in class, “there were only four of them, and they cleaned our clock.” In other words, when girls aren’t told they suck intellectually, they utterly fail to do so.

To shore up this last point, particularly with regard to mathematics, I asked my father, who is currently a high school geometry teacher, what he thought about the proposition, and he did some computation with regard to his dataset: male and female students at a charter school in Massachusetts. It’s a small dataset, but it’s a good sample. It crosses age and social class lines, and there’s good gender distribution.

Of all the students in the school taking geometry, there were comparable numbers of girls and boys. The grade point average of all the girls in geometry classes was 67.5 (not great, but passing). Of the boys, it was 64.7 (not quite passing). There was also an in-depth class for those who scored well on a standardized test–the school took the test-takers who scored in the top third of the group and put them in an accelerated class. Of that class, 13 were women, and only 7 were men: almost 2 to 1 female. The 13 women had an average of 77, while the 7 men have an average of 72.6. Finally, of those students scoring a 90% or better on the standardized test, 3 were female and only 1 was male: not 2 to 1, but quite literally 3 to 1. It would seem that even standardized testing of women young enough not to have been told girls are supposed to suck at math does not support the notion that women are worse at math then men. Rather, the evidence suggests that women are as good or better. In this case, it’s okay with me not to be special.

Monday, February 14th 2005

Open Valentine
posted @ 8:44 pm in [ ]
Okay, so last year, I sent electronic valentines to friends, family, objects of flirtation and everyone about whom I had had a pleasant erotic dream (yeah, as opposed to an alarming one). This year, I don’t have that kind of time.

So first, to my remaining single girlfriends: you are all luscious beauties. No settling. Aphrodite herself didn’t need a husband, and this is a greeting card holiday. Don’t sweat it.

To my family members: Happy Valentine’s Day/Enforced Heterosexuality Day! Send chocolate.

To my students: May you all find your heart’s desire.

To the fictional erotic dream fodder: Thanks, Fox Mulder, Ron Weasley, Grissom, Buckaroo Banzai, and yes, even Beastmaster, whatever the hell your name is. Nice ferrets.

And last but not least, to the real ones:
Phillip, love of my life and alchemist of fantasy into reality.
Mike B., sure, you’ll get drunk and wrestle Matt, and I think that’s sexist.
Bobby, your pants are WAY too baggy. Enough already.
Matt, for doing justice to a kilt. Cute knees.
Amy, I miss dancing with you.
Chris, you’re adorable, I’m ethical, when you’re 25, I’ll still be ethical. Shit.
Mike S., my favorite non-putting-out symphony date (even though I hate you).
Wayne, you couldn’t handle me on your best day with a vitamin B-12 shot, but you’re still cute.
Andy, congratulations on making the list, FNG.
Monica, I miss your terrific accent and your great laugh.
Tim, somewhere in a parallel universe, or sometime before we die… aren’t you divorced yet?
Stuart, you were in many ways a giant letdown, but my porndaddy subconscious didn’t get that memo.
Colby, yeah, well, you’re a big Todesco physicist with the posterior of an avid cyclist–what did you expect? Oh, just deal with it–it doesn’t change anything.
Rob, I know you think you’re getting old and boring, but think of it as… ripening.
Harold, a long-overdue nod all the way back to college.
Eric, so what if you’re gay, you’re just too yummy for your own good. It’s okay, sweetie, it was just my subconscious.
Curtis S., I will never forget the time you hosed down that bike–it was just like the car wash scene in “Cool Hand Luke.” Thanks for never turning me in for sexual harassment, even though it was a major form of entertainment.
Mark, once a year, like clockwork.
Taylor, I certainly didn’t mean to, but there it is. I still wouldn’t trust you with my sister if I had one.

I think that’s everyone.