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Mathematical Images and Gender Identities: A report on the gendering of representations of mathematics and mathematicians in popular culture and their influences on learners

Authors
Publisher
UK Resource Centre for Women in Science Engineering and Technology
Publication Date
Keywords
  • Sociology
  • Gender Studies
  • Women'S Studies
  • Media Studies
  • Academic Studies In Education Not Elsewhere Classified
Disciplines
  • Communication
  • Education
  • Linguistics
  • Literature
  • Mathematics
  • Psychology
  • Social Sciences

Abstract

This report details research into the following questions: How are representations of mathematics and mathematicians in popular culture gendered? How are the effects of these representations of mathematics and mathematicians in popular culture on learners gendered? To address these questions, we draw on detailed analysis of the following data, collected as part of an earlier Economic and Social Research Council funded project: About 50 popular cultural texts including films, websites, books, radio and television programmes. Over 500 questionnaires from 14-15 year-old GCSE students and 100 questionnaires from undergraduates in mathematics and media studies. 15 focus groups with 15-16 year-old GCSE school students and 12 focus groups with undergraduates in mathematics and social sciences and humanities. 26 individual interviews with 15-16 year-old GCSE school students and 23 individual interviews with final year undergraduates in mathematics and with undergraduates and postgraduates in social sciences and humanities. The main findings in relation to the gendering of representations of mathematicians and mathematics in popular culture are that: Mathematical representations are both invisible and ubiquitous in popular culture. And whether something is seen as mathematical depends upon context and upon the reader’s understanding of and relationship with mathematics as well as on their other cultural resources. Popular culture texts strongly support the association of mathematics with masculinity, and also with Whiteness, middle-classness and heterosexuality. This gendering happens through: the dominant representations of mathematicians being men, the disappearing of women’s mathematical contributions and the ways that women doing mathematics are subordinated in a range of ways including their youth and their positioning as appendages to ‘greater’ male mathematicians. Representations of male mathematicians combine features that ally them with heroic and powerful men and also features that present them as other, including: mental health problems, obsessiveness, fragility, and social incompetence. Their ‘genius’ is seen to mark them out from others and all other aspects of the self are subjugated to this. There is an emerging group of cultural texts featuring women mathematicians, several of which are part of a growing trend of young, attractive ‘smart girls’. While encouraging, there are questions to be raised about the low proportion of adult women mathematicians, the dramatised tensions between feminine heterosexuality and mathematics and the hyper-attractiveness of these characters. Both the representations of women and of men mathematicians, in different ways, present their mathematical abilities as ‘natural’ and as something people are born with rather than something that is acquired. Associated with the last point, representations of mathematics generally present this in ways that support ideas of its inaccessibility to the majority of the population. Popular representations of processes of doing mathematics show it as being about sudden and individual moments of inspiration that are accessible only to ‘geniuses’. This creative process is aligned with masculinity. There are some trends in popular mathematics that offer alternatives to the clichés, notably mathematics incorporating aspects of beauty, creativity, empathy and accessibility. In particular, much popular mathematics is contestable rather than set in stone. The main findings in relation to the gendered influence on learners of representations of mathematicians and mathematics in popular culture are that: There are very strong default images of mathematicians that are easily called up; these default images of mathematicians are of old, White, middle-class, heterosexual men and are associated with markings onto and into the body, including states of clothing, posture, mental health and social awkwardness or geekiness. These images reflect those circulating in popular culture. They are shared by men and women. Most participants were unable to identify attractive but unknown women as mathematicians while being aware that this was problematic. There were mixed feelings about the use of such images to sell mathematics, particularly when they were overtly sexual. Mathematics is constructed through a series of gendered oppositions such as numbers vs. words, technical vs. emotional and everyday vs. esoteric. These make mathematics something that is less attractive to women than to men. Discourses of mathematicians are also characterised by oppositions, for example between ‘normal’ mathematicians and ‘real’ mathematicians, people with ‘natural’ ability and those who just cannot get it or who need to work hard to do so. These discourses link to distinctions between everyday and esoteric mathematics. Again, these images reflect those circulating in popular culture and were shared by men and women but have gendered effects. Women are less likely to self-identify as having mathematical ability than men and this makes it more difficult for them to choose to continue with the subject. Both men and women’s sense of their mathematical ability derived largely from external factors, prominent among these were assessment results and positions within teaching groups that are setted by ‘ability’. The ways that people read images of mathematicians and mathematics depend on the understandings or resources people bring to them. For example, participants who identified with feminism more often read mathematical ability into feminine bodies and participants who identified with mathematics more often read examples of creativity as mathematical. Popular mathematicians and mathematics can provide a resource for developing positive relationships with mathematics. In particular, popular mathematicians can provide points of identification and popular mathematics can provide a space to explore ‘alternative’ understandings of mathematics that cut across some of the oppositions.

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