Mathochism: Building confidence

One woman’s attempt to revisit the math that plagued her in school. But can determination make up for 25 years of math neglect?

I was a bit apprehensive about going to class on Tuesday.

For one thing, I still have some homework left to do. We have entered the world of inequalities, and I’ve never felt the love for those since I was reintroduced to them back in the days of the Dapper Professor. For another, I was afraid Uchitel would tell us the next test is Thursday.

That would once again mean crunch-time. I don’t mind making this class a priority, but I have other deadlines I need to meet this week and this month, so dropping everything for the test is not an attractive option.

I know I’m not the only one who was relieved. Even Befuddled Girl and the Arguer were more mellow than usual. The class seems more settled now, and I think many of us feel better about ourselves after doing well on the last test. One of the women in the front row — I’ll call her the Junior Arguer, since she sometimes gets contrary — gasped when she saw her score, which was 98.

“You graded on a curve!” she said accusingly.
“No,” Uchitel reassured her. “You just have to have more confidence!”

And that’s the rub, really. I’ve always lacked confidence when it comes to math, but the reason geometry felt so intimidating is that it also involved logic, and forming arguments. And I never felt equipped to do that, at least not deliberately. I’ve always been a stealth logistician and arguer, whether it’s figuring out the best sequence for a plan or getting something I want, like a job or a pay raise.

And it’s only recently that I’ve figured out why. It’s because a logical woman is not considered feminine. She is cold and unfeeling. In fact, logic and women don’t go together, full stop. Women are intuitive creatures incapable of deductive reasoning. Their brains just can’t handle it. Everyone knows that! (For evidence, see pretty much any website’s commenting section anywhere. There will always be some jerk telling a woman she is failing at logic.)

A woman who enjoys arguing is even worse. As a girl, I was always told, directly and indirectly, that arguing is not attractive. Being nice is paramount. Standing up for yourself, particularly if it inconveniences someone else — no matter how much it hurts you — is not polite.

Much better to just go along, tell the other person what they want to hear. Then they will like you. Then they probably won’t hurt you. They don’t want to hear your opinions, they don’t want you to argue with them, even if they’re full of shit. Besides, don’t you remember real women aren’t logical?

(Which explains my instinctive dislike of the arguer. Sure, she’s annoying, but she’s also breaking the rules! Sigh. Embedded theologies are fun.)

But still, you may ask why this would prevent me from setting up a mathematical proof. Well, because it involves being assertive. It involves stating an assumption, then backing it up with evidence. It involves the logic my brain supposedly can’t fathom. It involves having confidence and not backing down when I know my argument is solid. It involves overcoming years of opposite training.

In high school, I swallowed the lie that I sucked at math, partly because I was a girl, partly because I came from a family of writers and linguists. I also swallowed the lie that being a doormat is the only way I deserved to live. I did rebel against the latter at the time, which led to conflict with family and peers. It took me 25 years to really rebel against the former.

I’m still building confidence when it comes to setting up proofs. I asked Uchitel in class if he could share some strategies. He regretted to tell me there wasn’t a surefire strategy, like PEMDAS for equations.

“Practice,” he said.

And, of course, confidence.

All text copyrighted by A.K. Whitney, and cannot be used without permission.

4 comments

  • As a fellow woman who has struggled with proofs, your post created an “aha” moment for me. It’s the idea that many of the women I know are very logical, and very good at forming persuasive arguments based upon facts. And yet this idea that women are not logical by nature is so deeply ingrained. I think many people actually choose to ignore or dismiss logical arguments because we are women, and it creates and affirms that idea that we’re not good at logic.

    Here is a proof, of sorts.
    A woman asks for a raise, and her request is bolstered by facts like:
    -I saved the company $XXX through diligent work
    -My assistant (male) makes more than I do
    -I’ve been here X years and was promised a salary increase of X every year
    -I have worked X hours in overtime
    -I have recently received a major promotion;
    and then her request is dismissed as “illogical” and “emotional” because she is female…and this happens over and over again…she may stop trusting in her own ability to be logical.

  • Yep. That is great example of a real-life situation that happens all the time. And what makes it worse is how much of that self-doubt gets planted in us by the loved ones around us. But that is a post for another time.

  • I have this in reverse – because I’ve nearly completed my degree in maths (in which logical reasoning was, of course, very important) – I very rarely have anybody telling me I’m being illogical.

    Unfortunately, what I do have is my partner claiming that he is being “logical” when I can see for certain that he isn’t! It’s infuriating.

  • Rachel, Rachel, Rachel — don’t you know he CAN’T be illogical? He’s a MAN!

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