Thursday, August 7, 2008

"Girlie" Math

Danica McKellar, she of Wonder Years fame, has grown all up and become a mathematician. Everyone who has ever watched VH1's "Where Are They Now" probably knows that (and what happened to that show?). And after growing up, writing a physics theorem that has been named after her, becoming a yoga instructor (seriously, she and her mom have a line of videos), and continuing on as an actress, Danica McKellar decided to do something to help minimize the gap between girls and boys in math classes and possibly mathematical fields. On a visit to Good Morning America -and if you watch the clip, look for the little girl by the back window- she said, "Boys and girls are afraid of math in junior high, make no mistake about it." But boys are encouraged to go into math and sciences whereas "girls don't end up going into math and science as much as young women because they're not encouraged to. They're told in every message conceivable, every form conceivable -billboards, magazines, tv shows, movies- that people who do math and science are nerdy, and they're guys, and they're told that math is not for them."

So she wrote a book, Math Doesn't Suck, which I'm sure many people have heard about. Math Doesn't Suck is an interesting book with an interesting premise -that if you teach "girlie" math, math with feminized examples in a "fun" way, then girls will learn math and like math and be more likely to go into math. Making it look like the cover of a teen magazine (and Kiss My Math goes further with this theme), Danica McKellar tries to take the fear out of math by making it safe for girls. By integrating lessons on fractions, decimals, and percents with quizzes on being a "math-o-phobe" and questions about teenage (or preteen) crushes and horoscopes. Kiss My Math has the same premise and the same cover, with tips on how to beat stress and ways of finding out if the girl in question has supportive friends. 

It is kind of like guerilla warfare, education style. The books Danica McKellar writes are about things like being cool and feminine and having boyfriends. She says, "In Kiss My Math, I teach averages and I say, 'Okay, if your boyfriend texted you this many times today and this many times tomorrow and here's the whole week, how many times on average did he text you?'; that may be something a 13, 14 year old girl would be interested in knowing." And she may be right. Maybe the way to teach girls math is to segregate the examples we give to boys (bullet speed, trains meeting, traditional stuff), and examples we give to girls (lipstick color, texts received, feminine stuff), but I'm not convinced. As much as I like Danica McKellar and as much as I think she is doing a wonderful thing by trying to get girls interested in math -and as much as I agree with her that knowing math "just empowers them"- I can't help but feel that books like this and examples like this just reinforce certain gender stereotypes. 

And it leaves no place for the girl who either doesn't have a boyfriend or doesn't care how many times her boyfriend texted her, the girl who is turned off by girlie script and the idea that girls are going to intrinsically care about hair styles and boys and being popular and cool. And -perhaps more insidiously- it makes it seem like in order to succeed in math, girls have to be pretty and fashion-savvy. The girl with bad hair and no fashion sense still has no place in math. It reinforces the notion of what traditionally makes up proper girl behavior, and it adds math to the mix. Danica McKellar and her books aren't the only guilty parties here; Newsweek had an article about the Nerdette, and every girl highlighted was a fashionista and tech-and-math friendly. Maybe this is the way it has to be done; maybe in order to make girls in math palatable to both girls and the greater society at large, girls in those fields need to be girlied up and made to be not only smart but also sexy -not only tech savvy but also pretty. Maybe girls will be more interested in math if they know boys will still be interested in them, and maybe boys will be less threatened by girls in math if those girls would be equally at home on the cover of Vogue. 

But I wouldn't count on it. And it hurts girls who look more like Sara Gilbert (who I mention because she guest-starred on The Big Bang Theory) than they do Danica McKellar. McKellar mentions that being good at math is seen by girls as nerdy, and nerdy implicitly equals bad. But nerdy is no longer a groin to the flagpole offense for guys ever since the tech revolution, so we need to work more as a society for making it less of a crime for girls as well. That would mean turning the focus away from looks as being one of the most important things about a girl, and that would be good for girls interested in math and in general.

I think the thing that breaks down the real problem of math and girls -the problem Danica McKellar highlights in the beginning of girls being not only not encouraged but even discouraged from entering math fields- is being solved more by McKellar's own exposure than even by her books. Here is a girl who has succeeded in math and science and is being celebrated for it on news programs and on book lists. She highlights that it can be done, that girls can be afraid of math in junior high and still succeed. She is the ambassador, the woman girls can point to when they're in their guidance counselor's office; one of the people who can counteract the billboards and movies and tv series. We just need more of her out there, spreading that message.


Jess said...
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Jess said...

I think if these books were out when we were in high school, I would have been even more scared of math, which I didn't know was possible. Seriously, scary teen magazine speak and scary school subjects. Yuck. If anything, I'd be sitting there trying to calculate the percentage of grammatically correct texts that I had received, so I guess my brain will be stuck on stereotypical girl subjects like English for the foreseeable future. But I guess overall, if girls can be reached this way, I'm not completely opposed, just saddened by the state of things.

MediaMaven said...

What’s the point of personality quizzes in a math book anyway, unless it has to do with math learning style?

I do agree with Jess that reading books like Danica McKellar's would just annoy me. If all her questions revolved around texts and lipsticks and boyfriends, I would be immediately turned off, feeling less included because I didn’t live in that world, that I had no boyfriend texting me. The math would be secondary, and I’d feel worse because I didn’t get anything she talked about.

In reading the girly script link, I felt the whole thing was very condescending. But I notice that after awhile, anything written in that upbeat, you-can-do-it tone that infects so much of female-directed writing sickens me because it’s so one-note and condescending.

But I also think these books, by using the girly language, are meant to appeal to a certain type of girl, the one most likely at that age to be turned off by math because it was seen as a boy domain. And that style is necessary in order to grab the ordinary girls, the vast majority who are interested in traditional girly things. I think the same premise works with other books targeted to girls and women on traditional “male” topics. Is it stereotypical? Yes. And it will bother people like you and me and Jess. But I think to the demographic—the boy-crazed mainstream girls like my cousin—will find it appealing and accessible and won’t mind or even notice the stereotypical aspects, and in fact would be turned off by something different, more straightforward. Even in the feminist movement, the only way to achieve their goals was to reach out to the ordinary women by speaking their language, of incorporating the message into styles and concerns that women cared about.

While I do believe that, especially in the past, women were not encouraged to go into hardcore math and science fields, I don’t know if approaches like Danica McKellar’s will necessarily change the fact that women are underrepresented in those fields. I’ve both seen and read that women are more likely to go into the helping professions like teaching and nursing because as a whole they prefer to work with people, not stuck working on abstract concepts. I do agree it’s empowering to know math well enough to function and use it at work and in daily life without relying on technology, but there’s a reason why engineering programs are mainly made up of men, and it’s not because girls nowadays are discouraged from becoming engineers. It’s just that that life often just isn't that appealing.

I’m not quite sure if changing the content of the word problems would work, although I’m in favor of making the word problems less abstract. I always found connecting trains to be very confusing, though I doubt that substituting limos or lipstick would have made a difference. I’d still have to calculate the problem regardless.

And I take issue with the fact that nerdy is such a horrible insult now. The “I heart nerds” t-shirt is pretty big, not to mention the success of Comic-Con, all the superhero movies and television shows that feature nerdy characters. Maybe in middle school is still is, but nerds populate so much entertainment now that it’s uncool not to be a nerd.