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?


About sjmharrison

Exploring feminine images of God in the Bible.

Posted on June 22, 2013, in Stereotype Threat and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. In the sixth grade I wound up in a remedial math class because I believed that I could not do well at math because I’m a woman. I wound up back in the advanced class and outscoring class average later in College in Calculus. I never let stereotypes dictate my identity again. It can be painful not to fit in, but the costs of fitting in are not worth it to me.

  1. Pingback: Math Girls | Livant Enterprises' Blog

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