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Women Can’t do Math? Nonsense

How many times have you heard people say how much they hated math, couldn’t do it, and still have nightmares, cold sweats and physical reactions to miserable math memories? A mere mention of statistics or calculus at a cocktail party can elicit a rejoinder from a complete stranger. More often than not, the immediate response is to move quickly to the bar or for you to be privy to a retelling of someone’s earlier trauma.

Math was never my strongest area of study. I wish that it had been easier for me to master or to at least be more comfortable with the material. If I had a time machine, I would happily jump in and request a redo with new instructors and the wisdom of a more fully formed adult to tackle all forms of math. Treating it like the elephant in the room and avoiding it when possible, also changed my career path in ways that I didn’t understand until much later on. I have coached enough unhappy attorneys, who in part, chose to study the law because they were not math/science people. While that is not the full explanation for all dissatisfied attorneys, too often it is a very common refrain; a choice by default.

What doors would a proficiency in math have opened up? Larry Summers, late of Harvard University suggested that so few women become scientists and engineers because of discrimination, preference and even differences in innate ability. Outrageous? Of course, yet many women continue to pick up on this negative stereotype and opt out in advance. Have you ever dined with friends who declined to “do the math” when the bill arrived? Have you ever dined with friends who announced they could not read the menu? The latter is a highly unlikely scenario unless it was for wont of reading glasses. So, illiteracy is shocking but lack of math proficiency is somehow understood? Why is this behavior more commonplace among women? In mixed groups I have yet to see a woman grab the check to do the calculation and yes, it is just as likely that she could do it.

Yes, of course women CAN do the math, determine the tip and divide the charges on a meal tab. However, it’s time for the rest of the world to catch up. In a recently published paper from the Academy of Sciences, three business school professors set up a lab experiment in which managers were given an “implicit association test” to measure gender bias in math and science. “The very people who are biased against women about math, are also less likely to believe that men boast about their skills, so they are picking up a negative stereotype of women but not so for men.” In fact, when the same managers were tasked to hire people based on the outcomes of mathematical tasks that they performed equally well, managers of BOTH sexes were twice as likely to choose a man.

What can we conclude? Bias does exist and Larry Summers was dead wrong. So if you ever have the opportunity to join him for a meal, be sure to smile and let him pick up the check!


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