Friday, April 27, 2012

Girl nerd

This is riffing on the post at on the making of a girl nerd.

I guess I am a girl nerd. Neither of my parents has a science or math background and my dad did not really do college. Cathy O'Neil says that in her experience a mathematical parent is the greatest predictor of mathematical daughters; in my experience an immigrant parent is the best predictor of a daughter's future mathematical success. I know only a few American-born daughters of American-born parents who are mathematical. They are not unicorns -- they certainly do exist! -- but I don't understand how they got there. An AMS article (pdf) discusses some of these ideas as well so I don't think it's all anecdote. Analysis of female performance in the International Math Olympiad also supports the role of culture in fostering female mathematical talent -- and the evidence is overwhelming that being in the US leads to steadily decreasing female math performance over the generations.

Why? Here I'll put my opinions!
  • America does not respect mathematics all that much. Many people and politicians are suspicious of any science, as science does not follow morals in evaluating claims of truth. Same for math.
  • In the US junior high girls who participate actively in math are often ostracized. It is not a topic for cool or pretty girls. Marine biologist, though.... you get to play with dolphins, and that's alright.
  • Having an immigrant parent insulates you from the above attitudes at home to some extent and home is important. You may acquire other handicapping beliefs, but they're different ones.
  • The value of an education is stressed more highly by immigrant parents, in my experience and on average, than by American parents. Part of this is self-selection: anyone motivated enough to move to another country to do something is, by definition, motivated enough to do something. At the same time, immigrant parents may be clueless as to how to obtain an education. Some of my students (usually oldest males from a few local immigrant groups) get calls to come home and take care of the family because of a health emergency, even if it's midterms week, because cultural values clash with the expectations of the US educational system. But the parents do keep saying the education is important in a different way from the way American-for-generations suburban parents say education is important! 
  • I think the skill of operating in two cultures (or the similar concept of code-switching) actually gives an advantage to female children of immigrants continuing in mathematics. Mathematical culture in the US is different than mainstream culture, and if you're comfortable switching back and forth and talking with both groups you may be more likely to continue. Men and boys are often excused for being socially clueless if they are mathematically inclined, so they can just keep acting according to the norms of mathematical culture while out at the mall, for instance. Women and girls are not excused but rather judged harshly. For girls in particular to have a comfortable existence in the hell-hole we call junior high in the US they must have some facility in switching between cultures. Transitioning between math club or math circle behavior and girl's volleyball team behavior is important and difficult.
As a young woman I found mathematics very soothing once I got proficient at it. This is apparently a common experience for boys and girls -- the certainty of algebra and trigonometry and geometry are an oasis in a confusing adolescent world. I got involved in some outreach activities and learned about fractals and hyperbolic geometry and that sort of thing, which was undeniably cool. (Fractals are still cool!) Eventually I found a community through math team and my accelerated math classes in high school. There were other girls involved; it was male-dominated but not so much so that I was miserable. (I did take a class one summer in junior high in which I was the only girl -- every other boy in the class refused to talk to me at all. At lunch time I either sat alone or found my female friends in the music class to eat with. Only the teacher would talk to me. That was an exceptional experience, though notable.)

Having parents whose attitudes do not mirror those of the American mainstream is one of the most important supports -- that comes through in both my experiences and Cathy's. Why is the US so toxic to mathematical talent, especially female mathematical talent? What could we do to change it?

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