XKCD and girls (part 1)

For the second week of New Blogger Initiation, a response to:

It took me a long time to realize how lucky I’ve been in terms of my own math education in the following ways:

  1. I cannot remember a time when I could read and there were not math and puzzle books in my house.
  2. In elementary, middle, and high school, my parents and my school worked together to make sure I had a math class that was challenging and interesting for me.
  3. I got to go to Math Camp!
  4. College. Lots of math there.

However, it’s only over the past year or so I’ve become more aware of another (and perhaps) the largest advantage; I LOOK LIKE a math nerd. While my teenage self considered it the WORST THING EVAR that I was skinny, pimply, white, and male, no one ever thought it was weird I was on the math team in high school. Even now, when I tell barbers/bouncers/parents’ friends about what I do, a knowing nod is often the response. I figured this might make sense in the gun-slinging, okra-popping part of the world I’m from, but it seems to be about the same everywhere I’ve lived (Texas, Chicago, NYC).

Let’s call the male character in the comic is emblematic of a type of (often young) male that I will call a “math jerk.” Especially if you were a math major in college you know the type: vainglorious, sees math as his high and lonely Hemingway-esque destiny, and often kind of smelly.

A math jerk need not actually come out and say things like “girls suck at math” to qualify as a math jerk. There are a few reasons I think I (even narrowly) avoided becoming a math jerk.

  1. Luck again: I always went to schools where, even though I was high-achieving, there were always other students with similar interests and abilities. This definitely cut down on the nerd resentment feelings I had to watch many of my college friends slowly shed.
  2. Female math role models; two out of four of my math camp counselors were girls. My favorite professors in college and grad school were both women, both of whom are now the ones I am in closest contact with. Especially as someone who could never really see himself in a stereotypical male-male, avuncular master-eager apprentice, Jedi-Padawan relationship, my relationships with both of these awesome women and what I learned from them really carried me through much of my post-high school math career, both mathematically and personally.

One aspect of my new school that I’m excited about is that it usually swings about 60/40 girls to boys. It seems that this way there might be some of the benefits of an all-girls school and some of the benefits of a traditional mixed gender school. I’m looking forward to how it will play out!

2 comments
  1. My experience is that most girls and women will be less assertive when any boys or men are around, no matter the ratio. If the girls in your school are well-supported enough to dominate math teams and such, I look forward to hearing about it. Good luck.

  2. Good point. I remember that my own high school math team was half girls but almost always with boys in leadership positions. I’ve been trying to think of ways to avoid something similar, especially given my own demographic profile and the fact that six out of eight math teachers at my school are men.

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