Math is hard!

// 15 October 2007

I pity anybody who missed Beautiful Young Minds last night. This documentary by Morgan Matthews following several phenomenally gifted young mathematicians as they battled it out for the chance to represent Great Britain in the International Mathematical Olympiad was one of the best films I’ve seen in ages.

It touched on many of the issues that such teenagers face, such as social isolation, the pressure to succeed and the high rate of autistic spectrum disorders in the mathematically gifted. There was Jos, an Aspergers sufferer whose confrontational attitude was incredibly grating by the end of the film and whose single-mindedness was a real problem both for him and for others around him; Saul, who seemed pretty normal despite his giftedness and yet confessed to being depressed “all the time”; Jonathan, bullied at school but a medal winner at just 15; Daniel, another Aspergers sufferer, charming but so excruciatingly shy he couldn’t go on stage to receive his silver medal.

Although the students in the IMO team were all very different characters, they had one thing in common: they were all male. Of the 21 teenagers who made it to the initial training camp at Trinity College Cambridge, only two were female. No girls made the final team. One of the professors made a vague remark about girls “showing their intelligence in different ways” but that was the closest the film got to investigating this. I’m not criticising this at all – it would have been inappropriate to have focused too much on the absence of girls when this wasn’t what the film was about, and the boys were all such fascinating subjects I was all too happy to forego a gender debate in favour of finding out more about them. However, it is something I picked up on and wondered about.

I was the only girl who took maths and physics A levels at my school, and everybody thought I was a lesbian. Not because I actually displayed any “dykeish” tendencies but because the only possible explanation for my greater aptitude for maths and science than humanities was that I “liked to eat carpet”. Apparently heterosexual girls just didn’t do maths.

Being called a “lezzer” as if it’s a terrible insult is one thing, but at a deeper and less juvenile level, being good at maths doesn’t always sit well with being female. There is a real culture of arrogance and competitiveness amongst student mathematicians even at sixth form level, which provides significant role conflict with the self-effacement expected of a girl. Students get up in front of the class to demonstrate their proofs and they are derided for making mistakes, or even for pausing too long to think about something. As soon as exams are over, everybody drawls that it was easy and that they finished in half the allotted time. Girls are taught modesty from a very young age, they are taught to be quiet and self-effacing, they are most certainly not taught to compete overtly with their fellow students or to boast of their own intellect. It’s definitely time this trend changed, at least to some degree. Self confidence should not be considered a sign of arrogance just because the person has a vagina.

Many people don’t just think that a girl doing maths is a bit odd and possibly homosexual, they refuse to believe that she could be any good at it. I found this very difficult when I was at school. Being the only girl in the class I had to prove myself much more than the others. On occasions when I made mistakes, I was patronised and belittled. On occasions when I came up with an elegant solution, many people reacted with surprise. Even the teacher would be astounded whenever I did well at something.

Clarissa, one of the girls in serious contention for the IMO team, says that she doesn’t feel that she is particularly good at maths despite being one of the top 21 students in the country. Amongst boys who are mostly either boasting of their superior abilities or just getting on with it without having overt crises of confidence, Clarissa’s neurotic disposition doesn’t stand a chance. Perhaps she didn’t make the team simply because she wasn’t good enough at maths in the first place, but it’s possible that the difficulty she had with such an “anti-feminine” environment affected her focus and performance under pressure and prevented her from fulfilling her potential.

It wouldn’t surprise me if mathematics is the most male-dominated area of academia. No woman has ever been awarded the Fields Medal.* At the very highest level there is no disputing the fact that men massively outnumber women, and that it’s unlikely that this is entirely due to nurture rather than nature. However, does this matter? On average, black people seem to be more athletic than white people, but that doesn’t mean that we make life difficult for white people who excel at sport. The fact that at the highest echelons of mathematical genius men seem significantly to outnumber women doesn’t mean that girls should be made to feel like brainless Barbie dolls when faced with an integral symbol.

Math is hard. But so is any subject in which one wishes to excel. Mathematics is not beyond female comprehension and a girl who has an interest in it, whether merely as a GCSE student or as a potential IMO team member, should be as able as a boy to pursue that interest.

Anyway, I so enjoyed watching the documentary and if any of the young mathematicians involved are reading this, I would like to extend my congratulations and best wishes for what must surely be a very bright future.

*I got this snippet of information from a slightly dodgy-looking source. PLEASE correct me if I’m wrong!

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