May 31, 2008

From Evelyn J Haskins:

Re: Gender math gap erasable, studies suggest (May 30): The write of this article is still using social stereotypes.

The idea that boys were better at maths and spatial reasoning than boys began in with the industrial revolution when maths, technology and the sciences because economically important.

Up until then, girls and women had been considered to be poor at languages and literature -- boys and men did Latin, Greek, other foreign languages and studied the classics and wrote the books -- including fiction books and poetry. Men were also the artists of the time -- ladies could do watercolours if they liked, but not the manly oil paintings!! The Classics of course being economically significant in society at the time.

Women were considered not bright enough to do such ‘masculine pursuits and so were condemned to study sciences and maths which is all their poor weak brains were good for. But their weak constitutions were not geared to study the “rude” biological science (all that sex!) -- mainly they were limited to physics (a really feminine pastime) geology, and maths. Of course the weaker-brained working class men could also do maths and technology, too.

With the increase in the importance of technology, the sciences and maths there was a (relatively) sudden turn around -- now women were relegated to the economically insignificant languages and arts !! Yet for all this, if a proper study of the history of modern science is gone into, much of the important work passed off by famous scientists was done to a larger degree by their womenfolk -- wives and daughters. Especially considering that women could not publish under their own names even if their husband or father would allow it. (Charles Darwin might have been the exception -- it does seem that his wife had no input into his work other than to tend to his health. ) The perceived weaker grasp of the sciences and maths in girls is STILL because of this social attitude -- it has little if nothing to do with the toys they play with -- and all to do with the fact that they are told since birth that not only are they NO GOOD at maths science and technology, but that it is unfeminine and that they are traitors to their sex which should be caring and nurturing rather than enquiring.

It is exacerbated by coeducational schools -- girls will intentionally do poorly at such unfeminine subjects so that the boys will be attracted to them. Just look at modern TV programmes -- girls interested in science and maths are depicted wearing specs. looking plain and being gauche socially.

(OK OK, I know that it is as bad for boys who are good at and want to do the humanities and arts -- but it doesn’t change the facts. )

Main References:

“The Scientific Lady: A social history of woman’s scientific interests 1520-1918” Patricia Phillips, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1990

“Pythagoras’ Trousers: God Physics and the Gender Wars” Margaret Wertheim, Times Books, 1995

“Hypatia’s Heritage: A history of women in science from antiquity to the Late 19th Century” 1986 The Women’s Press

“Pandora’s Breeches: Women, Science & Power in the Enlightenment” Patricia Fara, Pimlico, 2004

And my own experiences as a secondary Science Teacher and mother of both girls and boys.

Various histories of Mathematics and the development of the calculator might be even more enlightening, though these are not my particular interest. I’ve heard of these through my mother, who was a Secondary Physics and Maths teacher.

Evelyn J. Haskins
BSc (Sydney University)
DipEd (University of Queensland)
GradDipAppSc (University of Technology Sydney)


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