Mathochism: Unnatural women

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

Under the compass of Damocles Unlike my undergraduate and graduate alma maters, my current college is extremely diverse. White people are in no way a majority; in fact, I’m not sure there even is a majority. I mean, I’m sure there must be more students of one ethnicity over another overall, but if you take a random sample, say a line for IDs or parking passes, you’ll see as many white people as black, as many asian as latino.

We also have a huge international contingent, and you’re as likely to hear Chinese, Arabic or Spanish as English while walking the halls. There’s also Farsi. Southern California has a sizable Iranian population, and in Los Angeles, there is a whole stretch of Persian restaurants and markets near UCLA.

There are several Iranian students in my class, who converse in their home language before class. Several are women. Some wear hijab, and some don’t.

I was conversing with one of my Iranian classmates last week, and she told me that the idea that math is not for girls is not a common one in her country. There are many female mathematicians. In fact, women make up the majority of STEM majors in universities.

I thought that was wonderful, and decided to read more about it. And that’s when I came across this news story. And this one. For those who don’t wish to click a link, both stories are about the recent decision by 36 Iranian universities — and it appears to be the idea of the universities, not the government — to block women from 77 different majors. Many of these majors are in STEM, but women at some schools are also being blocked from studying English literature, which, coincidentally, was my major back in the day.

Justifications for this blockage from university officials include high unemployment among women in science (job creation for these women is clearly not an option) and the difficulty of segregating the sexes according to modesty laws.

But those aren’t even the most depressing reasons. One university president said women just aren’t needed. And then there’s my favorite: The educator who claimed studying these topics is against a woman’s “nature”.

Hmmm. If the majority of, say, math majors are women, and being a female math major is unnatural, does this mean huge numbers of women are unnatural? And if the majority of a group of people behaves in an unnatural way, isn’t it possible that one has the wrong idea about what is truly natural?

In my experience, anyone who tells me what is or is not in my nature is usually trying to stop me from doing something I will probably not only succeed at, but also enjoy. However, they have decided it’s NOT FOR ME, so my wanting to do it anyway is a huge threat to their embedded prejudice. How dare I not know my place in their forbidding universe?

Now, the fact that the above decision was taken in Iran is likely to be used by many as yet another example of What Is Wrong with Islamic countries and How Can People Over There Be So Backward and that doesn’t mean I don’t agree that this is a horrible move and I am heartsick for all those young Iranian women who were excited about mastering limits.

But where these many opinionators lose me is when they add Aren’t You Glad the Good Ol’ US of A/Western Europe Treats Its Women Better?

They lose me because, unlike in Iran, the majority of STEM majors, at least in the United States, are NOT female. And while there are fewer assholes in the United States saying, at least publicly, that my studying math is against my nature, they may as well be.

They may as well be because they cloak “against a woman’s nature” in arguments about men being better at spatial relations because there’s an innate difference in male and female brains and so women have no hope of catching up. It’s even worse when they connect that to what our distant hominid ancestors allegedly did (I say allegedly, since there is no written record), because human beings, particularly women, are apparently completely unable to override any sort of programming, ever.

Fuck that. Whether or not I pass this calculus class at the end of the semester, it won’t be because I overrode that supposed big brain difference, that supposed ingrained programming.

It won’t be because I’m an unnatural woman. It will be because I am a completely natural human being.

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


  • You can’t see, but I’m giving you a standing ovation.

    I got into an argument with a kindergarten teacher about whether or not boys are innately better at math than girls. It was really sad, because I know that she sees in those kids what she believes she will see, what she is invested in seeing. And she’s their teacher; her beliefs will impact their outcomes.

    I’ve also had many arguments with people about the spatial relations evopsych thing. I tend to tell people that they need to decide once and for all if doing the hunting part of the hunting and gathering has resulted in modern men being good at math or good at sports, because in my experience there is not huge overlap in the groups possessing those skills sets. (I also feel like if this stuff were all determined by humans’ ancestral past and not, say, the practice, preparation, and opportunities an individual has had in their own lifetime, that gathering business should mean that I would be way better at picking up shit around my room.*)

    Good luck with the studying!

    *I also really hated berry picking the one time I went.

  • That person should not be teaching. However, it might comfort you to know that, according to my sources, the crucial grades for getting kids into STEM are fourth through eighth grades. So if her girls get an encouraging teacher then, that may undo her toxic attitudes!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s