During our introductions at the October meeting, one of our members, Mona Matthias, said, “I do algebra problems for fun.” Everyone laughed. During the remainder of the meeting and after, I stewed about the laughter. Was it because most of us don’t think algebra problems are fun? Was it because Mona is a woman and there is a universally held belief that most women aren’t adept at math? To get to the answer I contacted Mona and asked if I could interview her.
Before our interview, I looked back on my own high school years when algebra was a required subject. I had enjoyed it. But I made it clear that I didn’t like geometry. Ironically, my mother, who was an accountant, and my father, a building contractor, did not encourage me to take advanced math courses. They saw that I had a liberal arts bent and apparently they ruled out math as a compatible field of study. I grew up in an either/or world. Very few girls in my class studied math or math-related subjects. The girls who did were called “square” (the earlier term for “nerd” or “geek”) and teased about their math talents. That was decades ago, but now, in 2015, we still find it humorous that a woman could find algebra problems enticing.
Mona and I sat down to discuss her education and her love of math, and we didn’t finish our conversation for two and a half hours. Although her BA is in English, she was interested in math from childhood and she recalls using math when she helped her father cut Sheetrock and build fences on their farm. She used math when she helped her mother cook and when she was sewing. Mona says she cannot remember NOT using math, and she has always enjoyed the challenges math presents.
I asked her if anyone had ever discouraged her pursuit of math in college, and she said that one professor to whom she went for help with calculus told her that “girls aren’t good at math.” Later, when she was one of the leaders of the Northern California Math Project, through UC Davis, the same professor was in one of her classes where he struggled with new concepts and new ways of looking at math.
We discussed why girls are not encouraged to study math as enthusiastically as boys are, and we agreed that even though the bias against girls and women in math is still prevalent, some progress has been made. I think that bias is insidious, just as the laughter in our BPW meeting was not intended to be critical, but nevertheless it was a reflection not so much on Mona’s love for algebra but rather as a commentary on the fact that most of us would never find it “fun.”
We have to change this attitude. We don’t make fun of boys who love math; indeed, we encourage them to become engineers, biochemists, and math professors far more than we hold those expectations for girls. We need to applaud girls and women for loving math. We needed to applaud Mona for sharing her love for algebra with us.
To this end, I’ve asked Mona to be our speaker at one of our Spring programs. I want her to share her story, and…. I’m hoping she’ll give us some group math and logic problems to solve at our tables. I’m sure that we women will find that math is both challenging and fun and that we are perfectly capable of tackling it!