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In Mr. Rumack’s seventh grade algebra class, we sat at tables that were too close, knees and elbows spilling over into the backs of each other’s chairs. Along with teaching math, Mr. Rumack directed all of our middle school’s theater productions. He had a quacking duck toy that he used to get our attention, and a rubber duck-patterned tie that he wore every Wednesday. Mr. Rumack pulled me aside one day while the rest of the class worked in groups, speaking in a stage whisper so that I could hear him over the chatter. “I don’t know what you think about math,” he told me, “But if you like it, I want you to know that I hope you pursue it. You’re good enough to do anything you want to do in math.”
At the time, there were only four girls in my accelerated math class of 20 students, but I never noticed this imbalance. I didn’t know, as I know now, that women are underrepresented in math and in the sciences. I didn’t know that teachers like him had a reason to try to get girls like me excited about math. Though I suspect that my gender motivated him to encourage me that day — he didn’t, after all, similarly encourage any of the boys in our class — I am grateful that he didn’t make that fact obvious to me.
At the time, my ignorance was a luxury — had I been more sensitive to the gender discrepancy in class, I might have felt less secure in my position in it. As important as it is for us to discuss the gender divide in math, we must be cautious with how we choose to address it. Sometimes, hyperawareness reinforces the very realities it seeks to combat.
Organizations and companies that aim to make math more appealing to girls often do so by playing on gender stereotypes. The website of L’Oréal’s “For Girls in Science” campaign is dotted with photos of various makeup products, framed by pink and purple banners. Science-themed toys marketed toward girls often more closely resemble the accessories for a Bratz doll than anything found on a lab table. These products suggest to young women that they can’t do the same kind of science that boys can. Marketing to the (socially constructed) tastes of tween girls relies on an assumption that the only way to get girls involved in science is to make the tools of science aesthetically appealing to them — and that, by extension, the only thing girls are ultimately motivated by is the physically beautiful.
The summer before my senior year in high school, I attended a math camp at Stanford. Every morning, we walked to lectures underneath red Spanish arches. In the afternoons, we sat at picnic tables and worked on problem sets in groups.
“I didn’t think you’d be this good at math,” a boy told me once, after I had proposed a proof. His palms reached out toward me in what he thought was kindness, as he added, “Girls aren’t usually good at math.”
While commentary on my interests is usually tied to my gender in a more subtle way — “It’s so great that you’re a girl in math!” — even encouragement that isn’t blatantly offensive can be damaging.
Such words suggest that my gender somehow makes my academic interests more significant. They remind me that I am not the face of mathematics — and that no one who looks like me ever has been. I didn’t worry about being a woman in math until I realized that it was unusual to be a woman in math. I recall those words as I walk into math class, concerned that perhaps I should not have chosen to wear polka-dotted tights that day.
I don’t want my being a woman in math to mean anything, but it does, simply because I am part of a certain kind of inheritance. My gender and choice of major will matter as long as women are underrepresented in the field, as long as anyone could still believe that, “Girls aren’t usually good at math.” I worry that I have some responsibility to be the proof that women can be remarkable at math — to be remarkable in a way that I fear I am not.
The crucial truth of the matter, though, is that I shouldn’t have to be extraordinary at math to justify my pursuit of it. This, perhaps, is the problem perpetuated by much of the discussion of the gender gap: that girls should think they are held to some different standard. When we treat girls differently from boys, even when we do so to encourage them, we run the risk of making them believe that they have different capabilities. Girls can do math without being “girls in math.” Math — in its unshifting rules and patterns — isn’t gendered. Its truth is beyond humans, unmoved by the boundaries that confine us.