If You Want Girls to Appreciate Physics, Stop Telling Them That They Can't Do Maths

I don't really talk about this much. I probably should do, since it's quite interesting.

I came across this tweet from Alom Shaha, talking about how having female role models doesn't make a difference to girls' appreciation of physics. Now, this is a massive problem - the ratio of men to women in physics is still quite skewed, but I'm getting off topic. He asked for thoughts, and since I have a big mouth and fairly good typing skills here's what I came up with.

It sparked off a little bit of commenting, particularly when I mentioned the role of the media in telling girls to "shut up & look nice". Two women, @RedRubia and @Queen_Claire, told me that nobody had ever told them they couldn't do maths and that they were very proud of being presentable lady geeks who had never thought that they should shut up, in which case, more power to them. @Original_Cindy then claimed I was wrong (but hasn't actually put any evidence forth for this claim...hmm).

By the way, yes, I know that the burden of proof is on me - but sadly, trying to explain my argument in bursts of 140 characters is something I find a bit difficult. So I'm going to do it here instead.

My argument is that girls don't do maths, and therefore don't appreciate physics, because they're not encouraged to be good at maths; in fact, they may be actively discouraged on two fronts.

The first is the persistent myth that boys are good with numbers and girls are good with figures. Why do I call it a myth? Because up until the age of about seven, they're both equally good, and although boys tend to have higher SAT scores in maths than girls (by about 30-35 points, so not really that much on a 800-point portion), girls outperform boys in the classroom, as well as outperforming them on sections of the SAT. Boys tend to be at extremes of the scale, with girls somewhere around the middle - oh, and did I mention that other OECD countries don't show the same trend? Actually, the more gender-equal a society, the lesser the gap between girls and boys in maths ability.

"But men and women are equal in Western society!" you may cry. "Girls are just worse at maths and they're demanding special treatment!"

Damn you, audience stand-in. I'm getting onto my other point far too quickly...but I digress. Men and women may have the same, or very similar, rights in Western society today, but they're definitely not treated equally. Women are objectified far more often and to a far greater degree than men are: we have insults for women which imply that they're nothing more than glorified sex toys, but we don't have male equivalents. You can tell a woman to get in the kitchen and make a sandwich, but again, there's no male equivalent. In media not specifically aimed at girls and women, there tends to be a gender imbalance which can't necessarily be accounted for by realism - either because in real life there are generally equal numbers or because you wouldn't expect to find many girls there at all. Those girls or women that are there tend to be attractive window-dressing, and stand out even in a cast full of people who could model (an increasingly frequent state of affairs; one sometimes wonders whether these people can actually act, but I'm going off-topic here again). That is, one sex is continually implied to be more like inanimate objects than people. I wouldn't even treat a dog that way, let alone a person who shares more than 99% of my DNA. (Actually, sexually objectifying a dog would just be disturbing, but I digress.)

That is not equality. That can never be equality. As long as women are still told to conform to kyriarchal standards of femininity and indeed of personhood, they will not be equal to men - and they probably won't try all that hard at maths either.

This attitude that girls are better at reading and boys are better at maths by default is largely internalised by girls and women alike. Most primary school teachers are female and they internalise maths anxiety, then passing it onto their female students. These female students (boys don't seem to be affected) are then more likely to believe that girls are verbal and boys are numerical, and those girls that do buy into the myth are worse than those that don't.

I was one of the lucky ones. My dad was - and is - a chauvinist who firmly believes that wimminz can't work with numbers, but he still taught me when I fell behind in maths classes and never made me feel like my biological sex meant that I couldn't succeed. My maths teachers have largely been male, and the women have all been very confident in their ability. I expect that other female mathematicians will tell a similar story.

I will now confess that I've got it backwards. I should have probably put this section in first, but it's a little too late now - anyway, this second front is that women aren't really encouraged to be anything, full stop.

I will probably have a lot of people up in arms now, probably claiming at least one of the following:

1) my argument is complete bullshit
2) I'm a closet misogynist and I'm expressing my hatred of women
3) "my experience wasn't like that, therefore your argument is invalid"

Well...I shouldn't be rebutting points before making my actual argument, but I will anyhow. I'd very much like to hope that my argument is grounded in evidence and logic - I wouldn't make a bullshit argument deliberately - but we'll see how it turns out. It's the best I can come up with given my observations.

Closet misogynist?...No. I don't fear or hate women. I fear and hate being told to act stupid to get laid; I fear  and hate having to cake my face in various substances in order to look socially acceptable; I fear and hate being told that I'm not good enough unless I have this designer handbag, that pair of shoes, or this nose job. All three of those examples are from girls my own age talking about their lives - a girl telling me to act stupider than I actually am to land myself a man, girls complaining about how shit they look without 5600 layers of foundation and mascara, girls carrying around copies of Vogue (which is just a volume full of product placement, really, and I'd much rather have a copy of New Scientist or The Economist) and talking about all the plastic surgery they're going to get when they're older.

I'll now admit that this section of my argument is based on what I see around me linked to sources on the internet - in other words, anecdotal evidence with some justification. Given that, I can't really try and rebut your points with "anecdotal evidence, therefore wrong". Considering there are many walking counterarguments to my points (not that that's a bad thing), that does make my argument rather hard to defend...anyway, it can't hurt to try.

When I go to school, I see quite a lot of girls who think it's cute to act helpless, or who have learned helplessness. They prefer trying to look attractive to actually working; they've got massive amounts of potential to actually do something useful, yet they feel threatened by having to use their brains and personality - some actively discourage it, from "I don't want to be labelled a geek" (just about acceptable) to  "All displays of intelligence are unfeminine, abnormal and should be avoided" (this attitude should not even exist in parodies).

At this point, please take note that I have not made any of these up. These are real attitudes held by real people whom I know. Not all of them are like this, but around 80% are. Even if this is anecdotal evidence - it's the first source I have. Even if I turn out to be in the middle of a cluster of very unusual people - I'd argue that they still need to be taken into account somehow.

On a vaguely related tangent, here's what @Original_Cindy said to me and what many people will probably say, so let's just get this out of the way now.

I'm not advocating looking like junk in the name of science. I am advocating prioritising studies above slathering on layers of chemicals, which should be common sense.

And as to why I blame the media? Here's my line of reasoning:
 - Thousands of girls wouldn't all decide at once that they should repress anything approaching a personality in favour of looking pretty, especially given the insecurity it brings.
 - Neither would their parents, who presumably would care more about them as people than them as objects which just so happen to show signs of life.
 - Even if the attitude spreads from peer to peer, the first girls have to get it from somewhere.
 - There is a large chunk of media out there dedicated to making girls insecure and boy-crazy one way or another. An even larger chunk of media treats females more like objects than people, or at the very least makes their existence dependent on the existence of men in some way.
 - Since that media is either 1) targeted at girls or 2) going to be seen by girls one way or another, it's reasonable to assume their attitudes are influenced by it.
 - I can't really find any other explanation and I assume it's going to be caused by something one way or another.

I'll freely admit it's not the best argument in the world - not by a long way. Do I want to find a better one? Um, hell yes. Do I really know how to get at the data and draw my conclusions from that?

...Sadly, no.

And why did I just spend an entire blog post talking about maths when the question is about why girls don't go into physics? Well, if you're going to actually do physics for a living, you need a good grounding in maths at the very least. So if you don't appreciate maths...granted, you can appreciate physics without caring for maths, but only up to a point. As in, pretty soon you're going to get a bit lost without the maths.