Is math sexist? One Vanderbilt University professor believes that it is.
Writing in an academic journal last month, the professor complained about the masculinization of math and how it causes the oppression of women.
Describing mathematics as a “white and heteronormatively masculinized space,” professor Luis A. Leyva insists that factors including teacher expectations and cultural norms “serve as gendering mechanisms that give rise to sex-based achievement differences,” per Campus Reform.
Leyva argues that a “gender gap” exists in mathematical ability due to these social constructs, and that there isn’t any inherent difference in male and female cognitive abilities when it comes to the subject. The differences, he says, give rise to the “myth of male superiority.”
Female underachievement in the field is highlighted, he argues, by teachers who point it out and reinforce cultural expectations.
In the article titled “Unpacking the Male Superiority Myth and Masculinization of Mathematics at the Intersection,” Leyva says that teachers “contribute to the masculinization of the domain that unfairly holds students to men’s higher levels of achievement and participation as a measure of success.”
In other words, being held to a high standard keeps women down.
Teachers, Leyva says, aren’t the only ones responsible for this oppression. Citing a decades old study, the professor argues that children are also complicit because “gendered associations with problem-solving strategies” encourage boys and girls to take different approaches to problem solving.
In the 1998 study, the associations are reinforced by teacher-student interactions who prompt children to associate “masculine traits of independence and confidence” with creative thinking, while “feminine traits of compliance and weakness” discourage girls from doing the same.
The professor concludes that existing studies on gender differences in mathematics are limited by their failure to incorporate “considerations for mathematics achievement and participation,” which he states is “shaped by whiteness and sexuality.”
To address the differences in ability, Leyva proposes the adoption of feminist intersectionality theory in teaching mathematics.
“Current understanding of mathematics as a gendered space, however, can be broadened through intersectional analyses of gender and its interplay with other identities (e.g., race or ethnicity, class). Implications for future gender research, particularly the adoption of intersectionality theory, are raised to inform more nuanced analyses,” he wrote.
Leyva’s study follows a call from a University of Hawaii professor’s to “stop hiring cis white men” in math departments, as detailed by The Daily Caller. The professor listed “surviving external and internalized misogyny” on her resume.
Ian Miles Cheong is a journalist and outspoken media critic. You can reach him through social media at @stillgray on Twitter and on Facebook.