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You’re Allergic to Algebra because You Think You Are

Today’s article in Jezebel reminds me of the devastating effect popular “knowledge”, reinforced not only by pop culture, fashion, but also bad research from the authority of the scientific community, on women, their self image and their future academic/career paths.


Forever 21 wants women to proudly advertise their algebra allergy

It seems that we still believe that women’s double-X chromosome comes with a genetic math and science allergy.  Lest we forget, even the men we trust to fix our economy would rather attribute women’s lower average math and science scores to biological deficiency.  You know, because that means it is just “natural”, it isn’t really a problem, and therefore it’s no one’s responsibility to fix it, even if you’re the president of Harvard.

It is easy to shirk your responsibility for this phenomenon, because statistics do in fact consistently show that boys score better on math.  We call this sex role research in feminist circles, where researchers start with the assumption of some innate difference between the sexes, they conduct some experiments, and like magic, their expected differences between men and women are proven!  We were right all along.  This makes for easy publishing success, because it is always easier to get published when you can prove your hypothesis is correct and the hypothesis is something we all WANT to believe is true.  It’s a little more difficult to say, oopps, my original hypothesis was WAY off the mark.  In fact, if you’re aiming to be published and this is the result of your research, you’re encouraged to re-write your hypotheses retrospectively so that in the end you can sound like you’ve proven yourself (and the whole of society) right.

Sex-role research, although it has been criticized thoroughly for it’s lack of rigor and poor experiment designs, continues to be popular and a formula for publishing success.  (Remember Men are From Mars, Women from Venus?).  Why is this research so popular?  Because it tells us what we want to hear: men and women are very different creatures, from our emotional capacity to our math scores.  It is so much nicer and easier to read books or a piece of research that nicely provides evidence for the things we already believe.  Ezra Klein makes the same argument with regards to political commentary by observing:

[T]his is one of the difficulties with analysis. Fairly few political commentators know enough to decide which research papers are methodologically convincing and which aren’t. So we often end up touting the papers that sound right, and the papers that sound right are, unsurprisingly, the ones that accord most closely with our view of the world.

Because it is easy to believe women are bad at math, because we have statistics linked to a popular social stereotype, because it allows us to accept this truth, avoid responsibility for it and avoid any conversation about changing this situation, this “truth” remains solid.  But more recent research suggests that women do poorly on math and science tests because they BELIEVE they will.  The phenomenon is called stereotype threat, and it postulates that people display stereotype-consistent behavior because breaking stereotypes is a potentially alienating social experience.

In one experiment, three groups of women were given a GRE-like math test.  Two groups were asked to read a “scientific” article during the “verbal” section of the test–one group was given an article that argued that women’s low math scores are genetic and the other group was given an article that argued that women’s low math scores are driven by environmental factors.  A third group read a completely unrelated article as a control.  The group that read the article arguing that women’s low scores are genetic consistently scored lower than those who were given “evidence” that women’s scores are due to environmental factors.  In fact, the environmental factors group scored better consistently than the group that read an article unrelated to math scores.

This one piece of evidence is not conclusive, but it suggests that we should be critical of research that confirms social stereotypes.  In fact, in another experiment, t-shirts and the gender of the person wearing it made a significant impact on women’s math scores.  I’d love to see what the differences in scores would be between a woman wearing the above fashion trend and a woman wearing something more like this:

If you can't solve the equation, your gender probably has nothing to do with it.




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