A small picture was circulating in social networking sites, recently. A photograph brimming with sweet words — “Hi Darling. Use my ATM card, take any amount out, Go shopping and take your friends out for Lunch.” These words were followed by the PIN for the card which was a complicated Mathematical equation, followed by, “I love you honey” with a peek of the actual card.
Honestly, I love the humour in the picture. I also like the non-reference to any gender — leaving the reader to make their own choices, though, as a woman, I would love to believe that the joke is on the man.
Gender and Maths has been a long standing debate. Colleen Ganley, assistant professor of developmental psychology, in his article in Scientific American, believes that the answer to the question whether boys are better than girls in maths, is a very complicated one. He goes on to suggest that it is the confidence and the negative attitude towards the subject that keeps girls away from pursuing math-intensive careers or even doing maths problems.
Women can’t drive, men can; girls are artistic while boys aren’t; men are good with tools while women aren’t — the stereotypes are plenty. There are exceptions of course. But, the belief system is ingrained.
To find out, I shared the picture in many WhatsApp groups and wondered who could have left such a message. Without a doubt, most of women, inferred that such a note would be left by their husbands. Furthermore, they all confessed that their maths skill was a disaster.
I am not surprised. In my extensive work with kids at Sevalaya, a non-profit organisation in the southern Indian city of Chennai, there is an undeniable problem of girls fearing maths. A majority of them simply refuse to believe that they can have a knack with numbers. As girls move to higher grades, the fear compounds as uneasy topics such as algebra and trigonometry are introduced.
Meet Lakshmana and Lakshmi — the twins who live in the campus of this NGO. They are undeniably smart who excel in various fields. Yet, Lakshmi, the girl, believes that her brother is better and smarter as he takes maths in his stride. Although the brother-sister duo took part in the various workshops we conducted like cubing and chess, and both of them showed equal promise, Lakshmi believes that her brother is smarter.
Perhaps, this is not about Lakshmi. At the core, the social equation between gender and certain skills, is complicated.
While belief systems are hard to change overnight, we can change its course by consciously taking the right steps and including positive role models for future generations. We want our children to grow in a world without biases.
Women can’t drive, men can; girls are artistic while boys aren’t; men are good with tools while women aren’t — the stereotypes are plenty. There are exceptions of course. But, the belief system is ingrained. No wonder, a majority in my social groups thought that the picture in question was left by a man. And, why not? References to shopping and the use of the word ‘honey’, somewhat alludes to women in general.
That, women have for centuries been associated with their propensity to “shop till they drop” means, this note with the maths equation was written by a man for his wife.
Stereotypical ideas such as these, when floated around donning the garb of a joke, impacts in ways and means that is beyond measure. On the one hand, it hurts our self esteem and on the other hand, it also reaffirms such wrong ideas which over time hard bakes into reality. Such belief systems for years, have been instrumental in crippling abilities before they are even tested. No wonder, machines have learnt them too.
Studies show that machines have learned to associate certain words like ‘programmer’ with men and they now tend to show the same biases that has plagued this world. No. We have not taught the machines any biases. But, if they have picked up cues to understand gender associations, it only reflects how deep-rooted our belief systems are. Honestly, how many women maths geniuses have we seen in the media? Think hairdressing or fashionistas — the only picture that comes to mind are women.
While belief systems are hard to change over night, we can change its course by consciously taking the right steps and including positive role models for future generations. We want our children to grow in a world without biases. For this to happen, we need to take responsible steps.
Let us not scare our little girls. Let us give them the ability to dream — unafraid of numbers or words. Let them dance to the song of algebra and learn that, there is a lot more math involved in life which is best learnt when they begin to enjoy.
— Sudha Subramanian is an author and freelance writer based in Dubai. Twitter: @sudhasubraman