The Innate Differences between Women and Math (Part 1)

Leverett had its annual Sophomore Dinner (the follow-up to the universally dreaded Sophomore Outing) on Monday night. Being a member of the tutor staff, I was there to form the cohesive bonds required to form a healthy, responsive House community. Next time, I think they should serve more wine. After a fairly riveting bout of Two Truths and Lie, the dinner ended. The cool tutors met in the back of the room to catch up and gossip. Among them was my friend and not cousin Lauren, a PhD candidate in the American Civilizations Department. She does most of her stuff in women’s religious groups during the Progressive Area, but for an upcoming conference in New Hampshire on history and pop culture she’s got to stretch a little bit out of her comfort zone. Religion, it seems, doesn’t count for popular culture. I suggested that she write about the mentalists, Harry Houdini, and Robert Barret Browning. Everybody knows that magic rules. Isn’t Job everyone’s favorite character on Arrested Development, after all? I rest my case. Lauren, stubborn in her religiosity, has decided to retell one of the oldest stories from the Catholic church, this time with a Progressive Area twist: the age-old tale of the clergy pederast.

Now it should be noted that both men and women took small boys during the fifty years straddling the dawn of the twentieth century. The girls, it seems, were left out. Perhaps we think so only because we lack historical evidence demonstrating otherwise; but maybe it’s because there’s an innate difference between boys and girls that makes one more attractive to clergy than the other. I have to be careful here. This is a serious topic. And serious topics require reverence. Readers, try not to infer my personal beliefs from what I say. I can already hear several of you groaning in agony. I don’t hate women, or even children.

So, when Lauren and I convened (with the other cool tutors), I asked her how her mentalists were treating her. She insisted that she’s not writing about mentalists—which I told again told her was a poor choice—but about gender issues. So I told her that I, too, had been thinking about gender issues for one of my classes. In my Introduction to Creative Thought class, I’ve structured my weekly assignments around some serious efforts to establish a satisfactory, background-independent framework for creative problem solving. (You can see my general relativist training seeping into the vocabulary and aims, can’t you?) Of course, there are social inhibitors and enhancers. And it’s hard to incorporate society objectively into a working definition. And thus, in a very roundabout way, I explained that gender issues are very important to me, too.

Without telling you too much about my hair-brained problem solving schema, I will say that society influences just about every decision we make. Even when we’re alone, we’re not. Post-modernists love this idea. Even when you think you’re alone, the experiences culled from daily life shape the little voice in your head, opening the flood gates for society and everything that associated with it to come rushing in and drown you, the individual, out of your own mind, even without any direct, external presence. Sure, I’m being a little melodramatic. Exaggeration can be dangerous, but here it’s well worth sitting down and inspecting which thoughts are really, truly, exclusively your own. Go ahead, I dare you.

The idea is that whenever anyone approaches a problem, any problem, he makes some decisions about which relationships will be useful in finding a solution. (Yes, sticklers, I know that problem identification is not well-defined. To those of you who care, I appeal to any appropriate variant of the very robust berry picking model for information retrieval.) For example, when writing a sonnet, I might include several relationships between words I use and the number of syllables they include in my relationship set. Chances are I wouldn’t have to rely on the relationship “Wings help birds fly.” The way we choose which elements to include in a problem’s relationship set I call a filter. Filters are important because people collect what seems to be an uncountable number of relationships as they go about their daily routines. It’d be computationally impossible to consider all of them all the time. Indeed we pick up rules so often that it’s easy to do so without giving them due attention.

On the Cosby Show, Claire asked husband Cliff the following:

A parent and child were driving along one night, when, unfortunately, another car hit theirs. Only the child survived the immediate wreckage but was in critical condition. At the hospital, the attendant ER doctor gasped to see the boy on the stretcher. “I can’t operate on this boy; he is my son,” the doctor exclaimed. But how can that be?

Cliff, stuck in his ways, forgot that women can be doctors, too. When approaching the problem, he secretly used the relationship “Doctors are men.” And so the filter that’s almost always on—unless we consciously recognize and change it—I call the ambient filter. Some people might call it common sense. Where am I going with this? Ah, gender roles comprise part of our ambient filters.

This post is starting to get a little long, and I know, being a reader myself, that it’s hard slough through overtly boring entries. To read about how filters relate to why women don’t do math, continue on to the next post.

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