The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

“Girls Don’t Do Math Past Algebra”

March 23, 2010

Today, a group of articles in the Washington Post, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and other newspapers, comment on the AAUW (American Association of University Women) report which will be webcast this Thursday.

These articles reminded me of a teacher that I’d had when I was young, who, despite my stellar performances in math courses, told me that girls don’t do, or need to do, math past algebra. Apparently, I am not alone, as the report lets us know that 40% of women who are now in the surveyed “STEM” (science and engineering) fields were discouraged at some point in their academic career from being in the sciences. While, if anything, that teacher’s sexism encouraged me to seek out education in math and science, story after story both related to this report and more generally can be told where women were explicitly discouraged from participating in or excluded from work in the sciences and engineering.

Just five years ago, at-the-time Harvard President Larry Summers (and current Director of the National Economic Council) argued that women are underrepresented in the sciences and engineering because of innate differences between men and women. I think there are two important things to say to this discussion: first, that women CAN do science and engineering as well as men can and shouldn’t be discouraged from it on any sort of (innate or social) capacity logic. Second, though, it might be important to explore the argument that our very conceptions of science are gendered. I have written about this in International Relations specifically in the journal Politics and Gender, but will make the argument briefly here …

In these fields, women’s underrepresentation is so grave that this “failure” to make it cannot be understood as individual or incidental, but, rather, as a consequence of structural barriers to women’s participation. Incidental explanations identify some factor or set of factors, such as educational differences, differences in the subfields of international relations that women are interested in, age differences, methodological differences, and so on, and “blame” women’s underrepresentation on those differences. These explanations imply that, if women had the “same” education, the “same” interests, and the “same” methods, then their experience in the subfield of international relations would be similar to men’s. As such, many who look for women’s equality in these fields are actively interested in finding more women who do “good work” and including them among the ranks of faculties. I have heard several department chairs and deans lament that they simply were unable to find a woman who met their criteria, and thus were unable to hire a woman to fill a vacant tenure-track line. In this scenario, senior colleagues explain, were there to be a woman who did the same work at the same level as the (more qualified) male candidate, then the department would have no problem hiring the person — women who were “the same” would be treated that way.

The problem, then, for those who consider women’s underrepresentation incidental, is that women are not the same. Because of perceived inferior preparation, skills, research interests, research methodologies, or other qualifications, women are often understood as less qualified job candidates and less desirable contenders for promotion. Women’s underrepresentation could be fixed by assuring that women got the same training, worked in the same areas, and obtained the same qualifications.

Still, there is a sociology to what is counts as “traditional” or “good” work. Feminists have described this as the “malestream,” rather than the “mainstream” because even where women are becoming more accepted as scientists, it is largely conditional upon socializing themselves into disciplines as defined by the men who came before them. If what is “traditional” is endogenous, then the problem of women’s underrepresentation is structural rather than incidental. Even were women numerically “equal” to men in terms of their participation and rank in the sciences, they would still be participating in a men’s world.

Perhaps the problem, then, is not that women’s work is nontraditional. Rather, it is that we consider women’s perspectives outside of tradition because tradition is laced with gender subordination. If “tradition” excludes women’s perspectives, indoctrinating women into tradition will not “fix” the gender disparities in these professions.

As such, instead of focusing exclusively providing women the “same” education and the “same” opportunities, perhaps it is time to question the value sciences assign to sameness. Perhaps it is time to stop thinking that women fall outside of the norm, and start redefining the norm in terms of the presence and importance of women’s perspectives in the sciences.

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Laura Sjoberg is British Academy Global Professor of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway University of London and Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida. Her research addresses issues of gender and security, with foci on politically violent women, feminist war theorizing, sexuality in global politics, and political methodology. She teaches, consults, and lectures on gender in global politics, and on international security. Her work has been published in more than 50 books and journals in political science, law, gender studies, international relations, and geography.