Friday, November 07, 2008

Someone is wrong on the internet ...

... and that someone is Shoba Narayan who, in her latest Mint column, says this:

... Men are better at some fields than women. Although he got a lot of flak for his “gaffe” about women not being good at math, I happen to agree with Larry Summers. There are exceptions—Sujata Ramadorai being one—but in general, women somehow don’t do so well in math. None of the Fields Medal winners so far has been a women. Part of the reason why women don’t excel in certain fields could be that they don’t “grab” us. Engineering, for instance, is a male-dominated field perhaps because it doesn’t engage the female mind as much as say, photography or design. ...

First the obvious point: When you say math and other such fields don't "grab" women, you don't mean there's something in math that's inherently masculine (or worse, unfeminine), do you?

Let me move on.

It is true that women form a small minority at the very top end of architecture (and STEM fields, in general). But, there's nothing immutable about the low numbers of women in STEM fields (at the high end or otherwise). If you went back to, say, fifty years ago, you would have found far fewer women. So, clearly, women have been entering -- and excelling in -- previously male-dominated domains in increasing numbers. The direction of progress is clear; the question is: can we hasten this progress?

That question leads to others about why women are in a minority in many STEM fields, and what the underlying mechanisms might be. One could think of many explanations: cultural factors, genetic factors, discrimination, etc. But it is not enough to just cite these factors in broad, general terms; it is important to figure out the details: which specific aspects of culture, which specific genetic factors, which specific behaviors have which specific effects. And why and how they have the effects they do.

That's what a lot of academics are doing, and their findings are, to say the least, extremely interesting: stereotype threat, role of video games in improving math (more specifically, spatial) intelligence, and so on. These findings have already led to better ways of teaching and testing to minimize the biases inherent in our current ways of doing them.

On the other hand, if you start saying stuff like "math doesn't 'grab' women" (even when you add a qualifier like "a part of the reason ... could be ..."), you are not just mouthing some inane generalization; you are, at best, ignoring all the wonderful scientific work on gender differences by psychologists and sociologists. At worst, you may also be putting a full-stop to any further inquiry, much like intelligent design enthusiasts who point to an 'intelligent being' as an answer to every question in biology.

* * *

Oh, by the way, Shoba Narayan prefaces her analysis (quoted above) with this: "I am a feminist." I have to wonder which brand of feminism encourages stereotyping ...


  1. Animesh said...

    She's the same kind of feminist as Sarah Palin is, a fake one :).

  2. Anonymous said...

    Shoba had this coming for a while now, I guess. Perhaps, writing breezy opinion columns does this to you ( even if you are a Columbia School of Journalism grad and trained to write with rigor)

    But I could contest every line in this lede on her gourmet piece about Pongal too:

  3. Vidya said...

    A nice post. My 'female' brain is challenged when it comes to design and loves mathematics. So on a personal level this stereotyping bothers me.

    There is one chapter in women in mathematics by Osen L.M where the author addresses this very notion and labels it 'The feminine mathtique'. This is exactly what is referred to as 'myths perpetuated'. There are several other academic and well-researched articles who do away with exactly this notion of the incompatibility of the female mind with mathematics. But then peripheral reading and understanding make way for quick and conclusions however unsound and unscientific they may be.

    The first issue I have with these peripheral-treatment filled articles is - Why not stop with open-ended questions more so when it comes to research where nothing has been concluded? Fact : There are fewer women architects. Fact: It could be the result of a combination of factors ranging from history to social expectations to stereotypes to rolemodels.
    The rest is fiction and reasoning based on a pre-concluded justification.

    And another problematic point in the article is the glorification of 'reclusive mathematician'. This largely seems to me an old-world paradigm no longer relevant in contemporary research. In today's world reclusivity and eccentricity are not virtues even for researchers, other factors for success are more important like openness of the mind - to new ideas, to forms of social interactions ranging from bulletin boards to conferences and symposia.

  4. Anonymous said...

    Women don't like mathematics because mathematicians are never good looking.

    I should become a columnist, or a freakonomist.

  5. Giri@iisc said...

    Or you can teach Maths Indian style.

    "Start-Up Teaches Math to Americans, Indian-Style",

    Preferably to girls. "Mr. Compton and Indian Math Online’s co-founder, Suresh Murthy, hired a team of math teachers and software developers in India to build the site and its curriculum. At first, the site was meant for their daughters,"