Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Women and Math

I hesitate to say much on this subject except to note that this tells me that in the past forty years the measured improvement in women’s academic standing has been driven by selective counting rather than a qualitative change.

The problem with scholarship in mathematics is one of both talent and inspired teaching.  Both are needed.  If those are available, then a student can prosper.  Except that it requires a selective dedication that happens to be as consuming as the work habits of any athlete.

My own experience provided for a social life consisting of six hours once a week during university. Preceding that I had filled all my free time with working through the entirety of my high school library including various math oriented books.  Television had little part of my life.

My argument is that there are plenty of talented people.  In fact I have met many over the years who could have done fine had they walked in my shoes.  Their lives were train wrecks instead.  Converting talent into academic excellence demands devotion and years of grinding effort.  Both men and women are horribly distracted from that process and opt for far easier routes than mathematical excellence.

I really doubt a young mathematician can sustain a significant social life and his dedication to his talent at the same time.  At least I have seen litrtle evidence of it.

I also hate referring to other disciplines as lesser skills, but all other skills rely largely on memory skills and common reasoning.  Like chess, mathematical talent advances in transitions that are individually difficult.  Other physical talents do the same.  Yet most academic talent relies on a mastery of the material within a field that is generally in the form of organized information.  A well trained memory does it.

My own skills allowed me to access the whole of scientific literature without ever been intimidated or mystified by the mathematics applied.  Specialist training in a technical field prevents that.  In fact it is blinding.  I like to explain to specialists that the mathematics he is relying on is the result of fitting the simplest possible curve between the known data points and hoping no one extrapolates.

The fact is that talented women simply do not choose to live like monks in pursuit of their obsession in mathematics, whereas a few men do.  The price is way too high and the outcome way too uncertain.

Are Women Just Bad at Math?
2010 JUNE 20

And do we need a government bailout because of it?

A quiet little piece of legislation is making its way through Congress to answer precisely this question – in the affirmative, obviously. An amendment to an amendment of the “America COMPETES Reauthorization Act” (the “Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering” amendment) proposes to allow the Office of Science and Technology Policy to administer gender-bias-awareness programing and attitudinal surveys in Federal science agencies. Christina Hoff Sommers, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, points out that the amendment will open the floodgates to sexism workshops, or “STEMinars” to combat gender bias in the hard sciences. For example, Sommers claims,

Once the Reauthorization Act becomes law, the anti-bias “interactive theater” experiment developed at the University of Michigan will flourish. Deans and chairpersons of engineering, math, and computer-science programs will be able to demonstrate their bona fides where women are concerned (and protect their funding) by requiring faculty to watch a series of skits where insensitive, overbearing men ride roughshod over hapless but obviously intellectually superior female colleagues. The plays were inspired by a 1974 manifesto by Brazilian radical Augusto Boal in his book Theatre of the Oppressed. The federal government will not only sponsor these plays, but also provide the means to administer attitudinal surveys to measure how effectively they have altered the consciousness of the scientists in the audience.

What could be a better way to obligate our leading scientists to spend their time? Instead of designing the next synthetic heart, they’ll be playing “Gender Bias Bingo.”

I defy even one person to come forward who seriously thinks such inane activities will impact the gender differential in mathematical fields. The suggestion is so ludicrous that even the New York Times deemed the effort a lost cause. Why? Because there is significant evidence to show that the rate women entering these fields is not under the control social engineers.

As the Times article goes on to illustrate, gender bias does not seem to be a factor keeping women out of these fields. The author points to several well-known studies (and admittedly, no study can ever be the final say on any matter) which reveal that attitudes toward women applicants and researchers did not seem to impact their success. In fact,

[L]ast year a task force of the National Academy of Sciences concluded from its investigation of 500 science departments that by and large, men and women “enjoyed comparable opportunities within the university.” The task force reported that at major research universities, female candidates “had a better chance of being interviewed and receiving offers than male job candidates had.”

The fact that women remain minorities in these fields is far more attributable to the findings of other, lessfeminist-friendly studies. Namely, studies which show a difference in mathematical aptitude between men and women and also a difference in life choices (family vs. career) and their perceived importance. What tends to hold interest for women and men — an interest in things or an interest in people — also seems to be a relevant factor and may explain why there is a wealth of women in the social sciences and humanities, comparatively.

At the very least, I think we can all agree that forcing our scientists to shed a few dozen brain cells by mandating their participation in “gender-bias” programming is not the way to attract more women to be mechanical engineers. If there is such a way at all.

1 comment:

Historyscoper said...

Duh, mathematicians have to sacrifice their lives to father their mathematical theories - father, as in sperm. It might be possible to mother mathematical theories, but more likely a woman would not only have to give up a real family but ...
Forget it :)