When Good Initiatives Go Wrong

28th February 2018

We don’t think anyone would dispute that we need more women in STEM – and particularly in the field of mathematics. Traditionally seen as a more masculine discipline, maths suffers from a lack of female graduates as well as prominent figures at the professional levels and there are many commendable initiatives to change this – but what happens when these initiatives backfire?

Numerous studies indicate there is very little difference in innate ability in maths between males and females. At ConquerMaths we have always been staunch supporters of young girls and women in maths and there are a growing number of admirable initiatives to encourage more female participation at all levels but especially aimed at those still in education.

These initiatives are generally fantastic and are no doubt partially responsible for the upsurge in girls sticking with maths in recent decades. However, the dropout rate for women from higher education and maths careers is still dismayingly high, and proponents of gender equality and representation in mathematics – both male and female - must find this situation frustrating and somewhat baffling.

The challenges to women studying and working in maths and how best to encourage them to do so are numerous and complicated. The issue has been described as a Goldilocks Situation, meaning you can’t push too much one way or another – i.e not ‘too cold’ or ‘too hot’ or and future approaches perhaps must take this into account.

‘Too cold’ or the ‘Mama Bear’ approach describes the attitude that assumes there isn’t a real problem, or that the issue lies with the women themselves. This maintains that whether you are male or female, if you work hard and keep a thick skin you will succeed in maths, like any other STEM discipline. They reject gender-based workshops and gender-driven programs and feel that a lack of female role models is not the issue.

But other STEM disciplines do not suffer such a large gender driven discrepancy, and such an attitude ignores the high levels or sexual harassment, workplace gender-driven bullying and the significant pay gaps women in maths still suffer.

The other side of the coin is the ‘too hot’ or ‘Papa Bear’ attitude which acknowledges the problem and seeks to provide girls and women with strong role models in maths from a young age, seeking to raise the profile of female mathematicians and to provide girls with extra encouragement. This can take the form of hiring or promoting a small number of woman as a token gesture of inclusion.

Many initiatives take a subconscious bias in the Papa Bear attitude – and don’t misunderstand us for a moment, we are completely supportive of such encouragement, but in a case of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” such initiatives can sometimes actually emphasize exclusion whilst trying to do the opposite. By using phrases such as “Girls Can Do Maths Too” or “Maths For Girls” can imply that there actually is a valid reason women need to be spoon-fed mathematics, and that ‘maths for girls’ is somehow different to ‘maths’.

Both approaches have their flaws and their benefits of course, but we have to say we felt cringe-inducing but conflicting sympathy with Brigham Young University recently, a private, non-profit university in Utah which we feel obliged to point out is the flagship school owned by the Mormon Church of the Latter-day Saints.

In fact, it is the largest religious university in North America and is very much a strict faith-based institution, described in their mission statement as being “widely recognized for its deep commitments to inspired religious values and rigorous intellectual learning”

They recently released a poster promoting a maths club event aimed at women. To be fair, it is to their credit that they are making such efforts to encourage women in maths especially at such a religious university, and while they might be guilty of a slight use of ‘Papa Bear’ language it is still aimed at inclusivity and making women feel more represented in maths.

Headed with the confident call to “All women who love math,” a poster was released for the student-organized event which invited female students of to “Come learn about research done in data science, topology, number theory, and dynamical systems.”

Unfortunately the poster also featured the smiling photos of the four guest speakers, right underneath “Women In Math” in capital letters – and not one of them was female.

Cue a social media backlash, with the original Twitter user who shared the image of the poser querying  “Is this satire?”. Ouch.

Oh, and the poster was designed by a totally well meaning female student, Bryn Balls-Barker, who was mortified at the reaction, saying that the purpose of the event was to expose young math majors to fields of research in higher mathematics.

Balls-Barker apparently posted on Facebook that while the event was aimed at women, men were also invited. “I chose to ask professors that weren’t already affiliated directly with the club so that members of the club would have more opportunity to meet other faculty members.”

“I’m sorry for any offense that was caused, this was in no way meant to be satirical or to make any kind of statement. The purpose was simply to help women in math be exposed to cool math.”  

We checked, the BYU mathematics department has 2 women on staff compared to 35 men, so they may have struggled there and that’s not their fault, but you can understand why people were not impressed.

Even when trying to be inclusive, there are massive pitfalls to be considered and while this is an amusingly ironic example of a bit of a disaster, we do feel some sympathy. BYU has since explained further in the same vein as Balls-Barker.

Even the original Twitter user who posted the image then Tweeted that she’d been to the meeting and it was actually worthwhile, and attended by some male students.

It may seem counterintuitive, but the answer to getting more women into STEM may require putting less emphasis on the "women" part and more on the "STEM" part. So please keep trying to welcome more women into maths – but always be careful how you’re doing it, as you could end up doing more harm than good, despite the best of intentions.