Monthly Archives: June 2013

Math, Theology and Women


Mathematics.. (Photo credit: M_AlPhotography)

This post was going to address only math and women, rather than math, theology and women. However, I just finished searching on amazon for a book by Tony Jones, Ph.D. I noticed that nearly every one writing about, and writing reviews of, contemporary theology today are men.

Why is theology a man’s world? I suspect it is the same reason so many women avoid math.

The back drop here is what you, the reader, are thinking and feeling as you read this. What do we already “know” about women? We suck at math, and aren’t logical enough for theology. Too relationship-oriented for either. That’s what we all “know.” That’s the stereotype of women.

So, I have two questions I want to discuss: Is the math stereotype true? (I’m not sure we can know  regarding theology, based on scientific studies). And, What impact do stereotypes have on women’s behaviors? Luckily, we are finally in a time when we can begin to answer those questions.

The stereotype of women and math is not true. A recent meta-analysis, reported in Science Daily, showed that “girls around the world are not worse at math than boys.” However, boys are universally more confident in their math skills. Another earlier meta-analysis showed similar results, that boys and girls through high school maintain similar math abilities.

So why are boys more confident? In the United States, stereotypes about girls being worse at math have become a form of early gender education. Another study in Science Daily showed that second graders have internalized these ideas. Boys identify themselves with math; girls do not identify themselves with math. Despite the fact that American second graders show no average differences in math achievement.

What impact do these stereotypes have on girls and women? Social psychologists study a phenomenon called “stereotype threat” —the effect of the awareness of being negatively judged based on some social cue like gender or race. In Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society and Neurosexism Create Difference, Cordelia Fine has chapters-worth of studies on gender stereotype threat.

And what happens when you remove the threat? Several researchers found that in tests of mental rotation, when stereotype threat is actively removed, women and men perform equally well. This is a test that men have, on average, performed better on. In this case, the threat was removed by stating that “women perform better than men in this test, probably for genetic reasons” (p. 28). The control group was told nothing, and the threat-group was told that men perform better. In those groups, the men indeed performed better.

In another study, the non-threat group of students doing a challenging calculus test was simply told that “despite testing on thousands of students no gender difference had been found.” Women in this group “outperformed every other group—including both groups of men” (p. 31). Interestingly, students in the threat-condition group were only told what we’re usually told, that “the test was designed to measure math ability, to try to understand what makes some people better at math than others.” So even such a seemingly benign statement is loaded for women—as in, “we know what you are really saying.” We’ve heard this stuff all our lives about women being no good at math, and it does impact our performance.

Stereotype threat has been shown in studies to get in the way of working memory and concentration. Well, any kind of anxiety does. In one study, female and male students in the Advanced Math, Science and Engineering undergraduate program at Stanford were asked to watch several ads for a conference. Some of the ads had an equal number of women and men depicted; others had a more realistic imbalanced ratio of more men to women. The study participants’ heart rate and skin conductance were recorded. Women watching the imbalanced ratio of more men to women had physiological indicators of vigilance and stress, and were less likely to want to attend the conference. These are women who are already in that situation, as majors in Math, Science and Engineering at Stanford. Can you imagine what their daily lives are like? No wonder most women avoid those departments. Who wants to live your life constantly anxious?

And studies show that the more meaningful it is to a woman to be good at math, the more crippling is stereotype threat. In 2001, says Cordelia Fine, half of undergrad math majors were women. But only 29 percent of math Ph.D.s are women. The fewer women there are, the more stereotype threat abounds. For example, one study found that math performance in women diminishes the more males there are in a room with a solo woman. If you found yourself in that situation too many times, it would be easy to just give up and say “They’re right. I’m no good at this.”

I remember as an entering freshman in college, someone who knew me well encouraged me to drop a calculus class that I had pre-tested and qualified for. “Don’t take something so hard,” this person said. That was all it took for me to believe I’d be in over my head. Math’s not for women, right? I had the second highest SAT score in high school and my math score was higher than my verbal. All I needed was someone to encourage me and believe in me, something to dispel the stereotype threat, not reinforce it.

The other day, my husband was telling me that the president of Harvey Mudd College is actively recruiting women for the computer science department, where women now make up 42% of the department (nationally, the statistic is 14%). She is holding all-women classes, for example, and simplifying introductory computer courses to make them more accessible to those without prior experience. She scoots around campus on her skateboard talking to women and encouraging them. Read more here.

When I heard about this, I surprised myself with my tears. I suddenly realized that I have gone my whole life with doors closed based on stereotype. Doors I’d never considered opening. And a few I almost opened.

I mentioned theology at the beginning of this. I had the same Closed Door experience in my upper level theology and Bible classes at Regent College. Mainly because the classes were mostly men. Even my upper level missions class had only two women in it, and I was one of them. I experienced inexplicable tension, a sense of both standing out and being invisible. The one time I spoke out, in defense of the other woman student who was ignored because she expressed emotions when she spoke of injustice she had experienced in her country, the class passed over my comment as though it had never been.

Much later in my education, I wanted to take Advanced New Testament to get a New Testament concentration for my M.Div., as it was the only class I lacked. But no way was I going to subject myself to the intense anxiety of being the only woman in a group of over-confident men, including, forgive me, the professor. So, I missed out on the class and the concentration.

But I obviously wasn’t the only one. Women had, in general, opted out of that and other higher level classes.

Unfortunately, this probably only reinforced for the men that women are no good at theology and higher level Bible studies. I doubt it ever occurred to most of them to ask, “Where are the women?” They assumed they knew. The women were polishing their toe nails and bonding, discussing lighter subjects like community and social justice.

I suppose it is going to take women, en masse, infiltrating these Men’s Clubs, doing sit-ins together. I hope that we can begin to talk about stereotype threat, name it as a reality women face, so we can open doors that matter to us, and learn what we want to learn. It’s going to take men, too, choosing to become aware of the impact of stereotype threat on women, and choosing to speak out. And to genuinely want to know, “Where are the women?”

How has stereotype threat impacted you or someone you know?

Thanks, Alan Chambers, and My Own Confession


Back in my Regent College Days, I led a social justice group called Micah 6:8. At one point I was having conversations with homosexual Christian men who were speakers or graduates of Regent. I had decided to host a debate about homosexuality in a climate where this topic would be “hot” to say the least.

Then I changed my mind. I asked a woman from an inner healing group called Living Waters whether she or someone she knew would like to speak about their experience with being transformed from having a homosexual orientation to having a heterosexual one. She was married to the leader of the group, who was formerly homosexual.

She was quite angry at me for asking and asked rhetorically, “Would you have a debate to discuss adultery?” Shamed, I muttered some ineffective response and got off the phone.

Yet, my intuition said, “This is right. Do it.”

That didn’t make sense to me because my mind still said homosexuality was an orientation which could not be morally lived out. The Living Waters leader was right, wasn’t she?

As I was in the habit of doing back then, I listened to my left brain instead of that still, small voice. Call it intuition, or the Holy Spirit, I still remember that feeling. And I betrayed it.

So, like Alan Chambers from the now defunct Exodus International, I wanted to chime in and say, I’m sorry. I screwed up.

But I’m glad that there are forums to say that. I’m happy that Chambers has provided an enormous opportunity for discussion in the Christian community for discussion about how to love people. And how to bring healing to people who have are deeply wounded by well-meaning yet wrong-headed believers, like I was. I’d like to post a part of Chambers’ apology here, because it is so powerful.

As I have heard people comment, that doesn’t make up for the damage. But without it, as a start, can there really be complete healing?

Here’s an excerpt from Chamber’s website:

Recently, I have begun thinking again about how to apologize to the people that have been hurt by Exodus International through an experience or by a message. I have heard many firsthand stories from people called ex-gay survivors. Stories of people who went to Exodus affiliated ministries or ministers for help only to experience more trauma. I have heard stories of shame, sexual misconduct, and false hope. In every case that has been brought to my attention, there has been swift action resulting in the removal of these leaders and/or their organizations. But rarely was there an apology or a public acknowledgement by me. 

And then there is the trauma that I have caused. There were several years that I conveniently omitted my ongoing same-sex attractions. I was afraid to share them as readily and easily as I do today. They brought me tremendous shame and I hid them in the hopes they would go away. Looking back, it seems so odd that I thought I could do something to make them stop. Today, however, I accept these feelings as parts of my life that will likely always be there. The days of feeling shame over being human in that way are long over, and I feel free simply accepting myself as my wife and family does. As my friends do. As God does.

Never in a million years would I intentionally hurt another person. Yet, here I sit having hurt so many by failing to acknowledge the pain some affiliated with Exodus International caused, and by failing to share the whole truth about my own story. My good intentions matter very little and fail to diminish the pain and hurt others have experienced on my watch. The good that we have done at Exodus is overshadowed by all of this.

Friends and critics alike have said it’s not enough to simply change our message or website. I agree. I cannot simply move on and pretend that I have always been the friend that I long to be today. I understand why I am distrusted and why Exodus is hated. 

Please know that I am deeply sorry. I am sorry for the pain and hurt many of you have experienced. I am sorry that some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt you felt when your attractions didn’t change. I am sorry we promoted sexual orientation change efforts and reparative theories about sexual orientation that stigmatized parents. I am sorry that there were times I didn’t stand up to people publicly “on my side” who called you names like sodomite—or worse. I am sorry that I, knowing some of you so well, failed to share publicly that the gay and lesbian people I know were every bit as capable of being amazing parents as the straight people that I know. I am sorry that when I celebrated a person coming to Christ and surrendering their sexuality to Him that I callously celebrated the end of relationships that broke your heart. I am sorry that I have communicated that you and your families are less than me and mine. 

More than anything, I am sorry that so many have interpreted this religious rejection by Christians as God’s rejection.  I am profoundly sorry that many have walked away from their faith and that some have chosen to end their lives. For the rest of my life I will proclaim nothing but the whole truth of the Gospel, one of grace, mercy and open invitation to all to enter into an inseverable relationship with almighty God.

Wow and Amen.

How has Alan Chamber’s confession influenced you to re-think this issue?

Marriage By Gaslight

This screenshot shows Ingrid Bergman and Charl...

This screenshot shows Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer in the end scene, where she confronts him. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“I thought you told me we didn’t have enough money for vacation this year. I see you got a bonus from work but used it to buy a new camera,” said Jane.

“What?” Joe blinked several times. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. You’re crazy.”

Jane dropped the issue, half-doubting herself. The camera was bought anyway.


Just what was going on in this exchange?

In marriage counseling, therapists talk about “gas lighting.”  The term comes from a 1944 movie called Gaslight. In it, Ingrid Bergman stars as a woman who is made crazy for a time by her husband’s intention to make her question reality at every turn. He searches for hidden treasure in the attic with gas lights, for example. The wife often notices that gas lights in the house are flickering, and the husband denies it, always acting as though she is crazy.

So, gas lighting involves deception, insults or abuse, paired with the forceful denial of such. But it goes further. It makes the one questioning the deceiver or abuser doubt herself. I say “herself” because often the dynamic is between husband and wife. But it can also be between a parent and a child, or siblings, or boss and employer. Women can perpetrate as well as men, but the one being manipulated into self-doubt is often a woman. Society brainwashes women, via stereotypes, into doubting our own perceptions and emotional stability.

I recently read an article by a man who was once a gaslighter, entitled, “A Message to Women From a Man: You Are Not ‘Crazy.’” He lists the things gaslighters (who can also be women) say to women who complain of feeling hurt, angry or frustrated with them.

“You’re so emotional.”

“You’re too sensitive.”

“You’re overreacting.”

“Calm down. Relax. Stop freaking out!”

“I was just joking. Don’t you have a sense of humor?”

It might also be just a facial expression—squinting at you like you are nuts. Well-rehearsed body language that is all about putting you in your place for truth-telling. Or a verbal sleight of hand that makes you question your memory.

Another way of thinking of gas lighting is emotional manipulation, says the author. It’s a play on “the idea that women need only the slightest provocation to unleash their (crazy) emotions. It’s patently false and unfair.”

What is the key to getting out of a gaslighting situation? Learning to trust your own perceptions and stick by them no matter what. Refusing to second-guess yourself. It might also mean getting out of a certain relationship entirely or putting boundaries on it. Let’s revisit the first scene:

“What? I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Joe blinked several times. “You’re crazy!”

Looking him in the eye, Jane said, “I think you do know. You told me we didn’t have the money, but we did, and now the money is gone. We need to talk about this.”

And, perhaps, to make an appointment to see a marriage or family counselor who is sensitive to feminist issues.  Or to see a lawyer if the gaslighter’s defenses are so rigid that change that change is unlikely and the oppression unrelenting. Or, as needed, to call a domestic abuse hotline and find a women’s shelter. Sometimes women cannot afford to truth-tell.

Bergman gets the last laugh in Gas Light, by the way, once a detective investigates and validates her perception about the gas lights. I hope this post is enough validation for you to be loyal to your own feelings and perceptions, whether you are a wife dealing with a controlling husband, a grown daughter still feeling manipulated by your mother, or an employee of a gas-lighting boss.

You are not crazy, and you deserve better.

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