Sunday, 8 April 2007

Math is hard!

Today I've been thinking about an acquaintance of mine. This girl has lots of lovely redeeming features, but something that really annoys me about her is her stubborn refusal to admit to any competence in anything traditionally "male".

A while ago, she asked me to show her how to use basic HTML tags (and we really are talking basic here - just line breaks and stuff). She sat at her desk sporting a rabbit-in-headlights expression, repeating phrases such as "Oh no, I really don't understand this" "I'm so useless with computers" rather than actually concentrating and making any real effort to learn how to do it for herself. The same goes for anything maths related, anything computer related, anything vaguely logical, carrying heavy things*... It may come as no surprise that this girl irons her boyfriend's shirts. (Actually, I used to iron my last boyfriend's shirts. But only because I was better at it than him. And he used to make me breakfast whilst I was doing it.)

This is the case for quite a lot of women. They assert their femininity by refusing to become proficient in "male" activities, as if coding their own HTML will magically turn them into a fat ugly cow. Women are not supposed to be good at certain things. There is a long list of skills that women are not allowed to have. This is just what I can think of off the top of my head:

Computer programming
Parallel parking
Wiring plugs
Assembling flat pack furniture
Reading maps

On average, women are slightly worse at these sorts of activities than men. On average, women are better at language and communication, and have better empathy. But what you never ever get told when bollocks newspapers report on all these bollocks surveys that for some reason scientists manage to get funding for is firstly that these differences between men and women are tiny and probably attributable to differences in upbringing rather than brain chemistry, and secondly that there is massively more variation between people regardless of gender than there is between the genders themselves. Bottom line is, we're all different. Some talents and shortcomings might have a greater bias towards one gender than the other, but if you happen to be good at parallel parking this does not make you any less of a girl. You wouldn't regard a considerate man with a wide vocabulary a poofter. A man has nothing to fear by excelling in anything to which he puts his mind. A woman is regarded as unattractive for being good at the wrong things. I myself was repeatedly accused of being a "lezzer" at school because I took maths and physics A levels. Nobody would have batted an eyelid had it been English and history, but nor would they have batted an eyelid had a boy taken these subjects.

Because women are all too happy to perpetuate this myth that they are incapable of adding up because it makes them feel more "feminine", men are all too happy simply to go along with it, seeing as it asserts their superiority. You don't see men bemoaning their narrow vocabulary for example, making a show of asking women for help in writing letters. Attention is not drawn to male "shortcomings" in the same way. Therefore we have an image of men as competent in everything, including "female" activities, but of women as incompetent in these traditionally "male" fields. We have a general culture of inferiority perpetuated by social conditioning that tells girls that math is hard and that they'd better not grow up to become a computer programmer or else they'll be a greasy-haired freak in NHS glasses playing World of Warcraft at three in the morning and never getting laid, ever.

And then of course, there's the fact that at school, more value is placed on the "male" maths and science subjects - they are regarded as more difficult than "female" arts or humanities. If you subscribe to this theory, then check this out. It's an online version of the entrance exams that Cambridge admissions tutors are using to put potential undergraduates through their paces these days. I don't know about you, but I sailed through the maths/spatial awareness/data analysis type questions to the extent to which I wondered if they were trick questions, whilst really, genuinely struggling with most of the more humanities-biased questions.

Anyway, bottom line is, unless you are genuinely bad at something and genuinely want help with it, do it yourself, because you are just as competent as a man. And if you're so unsure of your gender that you feel the need to bemoan that math is hard, just take a look in your pants.

* Actually, I do think that as a general rule, men should help women carry heavy things. It's good manners. There's no shame in accepting that men have more brute strength than women. I was however none too impressed by the man who once offered to help me (an attractive nineteen-year-old at the time) carry my bags with which I was clearly having no trouble, ignoring the fat old lady next to me who was struggling with hers. That is not chivalry.

HTML Copyright The Urban Feminist 2007

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