13 April 2008

Maths? But thats a boys' course!

That is a reaction with which I am all too familiar, as a female Maths undergrad. And you know what? A small part of me believes it. And a little bit more of me believes it every time I struggle with work, but my male friends appear to be sailing along. Despite the fact that at most good Universities in the country, and I suspect across the world, the number of female Maths undergrads equals that of the males, sexism remains unbelievably prevalent when people consider the subject of Mathematics. A particularly gobsmacking example is that of the views of Lawrence Summers, President of Harvard University, outlined in this article. I am incredibly glad I am not studying there!

So why do people cling on to this outdated view that women are more talented verbally, and men more talented mathematically? Why can both men and women not be good at both? I consider myself to be verbally talented, but believed my real talents to lie in the more scientific arena; despite the frequent misogynistic attitudes I encountered. The single best and most inspiring lecturer I have had, a Cambridge Mathematics graduate, was female. So was she just some mad exception that proves the rule?

I believe the struggles I have with my studies not to be gender related, but genuine difficulties with a very tough course. I also think that many boys find the course as difficult as I do, but have been trained to think very differently; if a boy says to someone that they will be reading Mathematics at University, the reaction will be, in general, very different to the reaction I get.

I don't know why I have such issues with self belief, whether it is a gender stereotype related problem or whether it is something more personal, but I strongly believe that women studying and working in all of the sciences, not just Maths, need much more encouragement and support than they are getting. It is no good having equal numbers of boys and girls starting scientific degrees, if the women are only going to get disheartened and depressed by the misogynistic attitudes of their peers.

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