What does a mathematician look like?
Stereotypically, mathematicians are often seen as socially inept, overwrought, geniuses — and almost always male. This leaves women out of the equation and makes it harder for young women to picture themselves as mathematicians in the future.
It’s something Sarah Mayes-Tang, an assistant professor, teaching stream in the Faculty of Arts & Science’s Department of Mathematics wants to change.
But how do instructors go about changing the stereotypical perception of mathematicians and make young women feel like they belong in the field?
Mayes-Tang says it starts in the classroom — and it starts with storytelling.
“I’m realizing the importance of stories more and more as a teacher,” says Mayes-Tang. “Stories are memorable and impactful. If you have a story to associate with a person or a mathematical concept, it’s better learned.”
Pushing back against these stereotypes and introducing the stories of women in the classroom is at the heart of Mayes-Tang’s “Telling Women’s Stories: A Resource for College Mathematics Instructors,” recently published in the Journal of Humanistic Mathematics.
We know that many of the myths around mathematics — like ‘you’re either a math person or you’re not’, ‘math doesn’t require any creativity’ and ‘math is competitive’ — impact girls and women more than boys and men.
“We know that many of the myths around mathematics — like ‘you’re either a math person or you’re not’, ‘math doesn’t require any creativity’ and ‘math is competitive’ — impact girls and women more than boys and men,” says Mayes-Tang.
It’s something she says continues on in higher education, writing that “experiences in undergraduate mathematics classes often widen, rather than narrow, the gender gap in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).”
And it’s easy to see why.
In mathematics classes, students often learn about mathematicians through the concepts that are named after them — Leibniz’s integral rule, the Pythagorean theorem, the Fibonacci sequence.
But almost all mathematical concepts are named after men.
So when students flip through their textbooks and come across the short vignettes about the mathematicians behind the concepts, they only see the stories of men.
“Many of these stories become almost mythical, with the heroes of the stories having an unnatural mathematical ability that showed itself at an early age,” says Mayes-Tang.
But Mayes-Tang says women’s stories are often different and even though women’s stories may not come up as naturally — they’re rich and worthy of classroom time.
Women’s stories often tell of struggle with mathematics, or an early dislike of the subject, defying the ‘genius’ myth.
“Women’s stories often tell of struggle with mathematics, or an early dislike of the subject, defying the ‘genius’ myth. They also often include aspects of lives outside of mathematics: caring for family, laughing with friends and the social side of the mathematical community.”
It’s something Mayes-Tang saw the importance of when she was an undergraduate student.
“I only had two female mathematics professors during my undergraduate degree,” says Mayes-Tang. “One was a prominent older mathematician and the other was at the very beginning of her career.
“They both had a great impact on the way I saw myself in mathematics. The older mathematician taught me that women could be very successful at the highest levels, while the younger mathematician talked about her baby and her interests outside of mathematics.”
And Mayes-Tang says it’s that same kind of exposure to different role models that can help current math students feel like they belong.
As a graduate student, she recalls feeling like she wasn’t taken seriously by some professors, which she couldn’t help but suspect was related to her affinity for ‘feminine’ self-presentation, like manicures and stylish outfits.
“I realized that one of the reasons my femininity didn’t feel welcome in mathematics was simply because I hadn’t seen many feminine mathematicians,” says Mayes-Tang. “We need to dress professionally so that we’re taken seriously, but not too nicely or else people will think that we’re more invested in clothes than math.
Math is a very friendly community and is open to those who are humble and eager to experience this beautiful subject.
“Seeing a woman dressed in feminine professional clothing should not be an anomaly in mathematics,” says Mayes-Tang. “Everyone needs to see a variety of role models, even professional mathematicians.”
In addition to increasing the diversity of role models in mathematics, Mayes-Tang thinks there are other important ways to make math more inclusive to everyone.
“We need to expose students to creativity and mathematics from a young age. We need to deemphasize competition and emphasize collaboration. We need to show students that there are multiple solutions to problems, and that the process is more important than the final answer. All of this gets to the heart of what mathematics really is.
“Math is a very friendly community and is open to those who are humble and eager to experience this beautiful subject,” says Mayes-Tang.
“We want others to succeed and our community will be better when it’s more diverse.”