Three teachers of mathematics in Dubai refute Harvard University President's remarks that gender differences explain why there are fewer women in science and engineering

At the beginning of the last century, Harriet Brooks, a physicist, made some original and noteworthy contributions to radioactivity research. She became Nobel laureate Lord Rutherford's first graduate student at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

In 1906, while teaching at Barnard College in the US, a married Brooks was asked to resign on grounds that "the college cannot afford to have women on the staff to whom the college work is secondary; the college is not willing to stamp with approval a woman to whom self-elected home duties can be secondary."

Adding insult to injury, Barnard was a women's college and the dean was a woman.

Countering the opposition to her continuing after marriage, Brooks said, "I think it is a duty I owe to my profession and to my sex to show that a woman has a right to the practice of her profession and cannot be condemned to abandon it merely because she marries.

"I cannot conceive how women's colleges, inviting and encouraging women to enter professions, can be justly founded or maintained denying such a principle."

Brooks' dismissal was cancelled but she resigned anyway and went to France to work with Pierre and Marie Curie.

It is a sad commentary on the attitude of society that Harriet Brooks did not continue her profession as a physicist after her marriage and subsequent motherhood.

But have things changed 100 years on? Today, in the era of "political correctness", officials will not go on record saying or doing something like that.

Yet Lawrence Summers, President of Harvard University, wondered aloud whether innate gender differences were the cause of fewer women in science and engineering faculties.

"The comment raised hackles and provided fodder for many heated debates. But we must assume that as a responsible man, Summers had pondered the problem before voicing his concerns.

"It is easy to rue the paucity of women in physics and mathematics. It is easier still to attribute this lack to some basic differences in gender.

Studies on the mathematical skills of male and female students carried out by many educators and scientists have rarely resulted in conclusive findings either way.

It is amazing how in the face of evidence to the contrary, men who matter are perpetuating the myth that physics and mathematics are beyond the abilities of most women.

And when a woman is credited with possessing excellent skills in these subjects, she is looked upon as an oddity, or an exception that proves the rule.

Alma Norovsky, a US-based physicist, related in an interview how awful the situation can be. "I enjoyed being one of the few women in physics but I certainly did not enjoy it when I realised women in physics were considered ugly, undesirable, clumsy and eccentric. I wanted to be lovely and still a fine physicist."

Even though she was a good physics student from high school onwards, nobody took her seriously because she was a pretty and very outgoing girl.

"At every dinner table, in offices, the constant little indicators are that you don't really exist. You have to remind them all the time that you are a thinking, working being just like them."

Dr Harold C. Lyon Jr, former Director of Education for the Gifted and Talented in the UK, quoted one mother who complained to the Bureau of Education about the hostility of a teacher towards her daughter in fifth grade: ‘Put your hand down, Carla; your arm is just going to get tired. We know you are bringing those answers from home.'

Dr Lyon Jr. said that the talented youngster who survives such negative atmosphere does so despite the system rather than because of it.

In segregated classrooms comprising only girls, the problem is less severe simply because the girls can be themselves and do well without suffering the extra pressure of their femininity.

Bertha Swirles, an eminent physicist in the last century recalled shortly before her death in 1999 how at the centenary celebrations of the discovery of the electron by Sir J.J. Thomson in Cambridge, she was invited to reminisce as the oldest scientist present.

"I faced an audience, mostly of men, with a sprinkling of women. At this end of the 20th century I find it disappointing that the proportion of women is still small.
"As I was brought up almost entirely by women, it did not occur to me that there was anything strange in wanting to become a mathematician or physicist."

Closing the gap

Notes asked three teachers of mathematics, hailing from diverse backgrounds, about their views.

Rita Al Rouady, a Lebanese national teaching at Dubai Women's College, said: "At university I was fortunate enough to be in a graduate department (Math) that was relatively hospitable to women. A lot of women encounter problems from their male professors. One way or the other women prevail.

"They catch up with boys in maths. Over the last couple of decades statistics have shown that women are moving towards closing the gap considerably in science," she added.

Rita feels that in most cultures, women's performance in mathematics is undermined by false beliefs perpetuated by the gender myth and the girls-don't-need-maths-anyway attitude.

"Research has failed to prove that men are better in maths than women," said Rita. "The gender myth that the brains of girls and boys are different and are suited for different things is just that - a myth.

"People often credit women's successes to luck and blame their failures to gender differences while with men, failure is attributed to bad luck and success to superior intelligence," she added.

Social conditioning encourages women to admit inadequacy in mathematics. Parents tend to unconsciously let their daughters drop out of maths courses when they start facing difficulties but are very persistent and encouraging with their sons.

Very early on, boys tinker with building blocks, Legos, simple machines and electrical repairs that reinforce many mathematical and scientific concepts.

Girls often miss out on this, and usually experience these concepts for the first time in the classroom.

"During my 14 years experience of teaching mathematics I taught both girls and boys from elementary, middle and high school, as well as at college levels.

"I am equally challenged by girls and boys to make maths accessible and exciting. Both sexes face problems in mathematics but react differently," said Rita.

"I was careful not to ‘fail at fairness' like teachers often do," she added.

Naïve remark

Could the Harvard president's comments have been taken out of context by the media, Notes asked Cecilia Nembou, Assistant Professor in the College of Information Technology at the University of Wollongong in Dubai (UOWD)?

"Well, if you are in that position, you have to be more careful about what you say. You cannot be so naive," Nembou said.

She is certainly in a position to refute Summer's statement. A bachelor's degree in mathematics followed by a masters and a doctorate in operations research, Nembou was the first person - let alone the first woman - to receive a Ph.D in mathematical science in her country, Papua New Guine