“Women, girls, females, ladies, just can’t cut it”: Clarification

at math, physics, logic, philosophy or even chess.

Have you heard such remarks?  There are lots of interesting details we might ask for later, but this initial survey just asks if you’ve heard a remark about the inferiority of women or girls in some area where we think abstract reasoning is required. 

**Of course, most of us have probably heard of – or read of – someone’s saying this.  So let’s just consider its being said in academic or busness/work/competition contexts.  You’ve heard it personally, as it were.**

There are lots of areas in the arts where comparable things might be said, but let’s not include those areas in this first survey.


Thanks to lga  for her comment, the first one on this post.

14 thoughts on ““Women, girls, females, ladies, just can’t cut it”: Clarification

  1. It would also be interesting to learn if people have heard others say that men’s reasoning is flawed because they think too linearly and can’t synthesize across domains or modalities very well (or as well as women can). I don’t think that I have, but I could picture a hypothetical female-dominated kyriarchy justifying itself that way.

  2. lga, I’m not completely sure, but I think I have heard comments like that made about men’s reasoning. Obviously, though, they haven’t been made to justify the exclusion of men from large academic fields.

    One interesting thing I’ve noticed is the way in which quite a few men in the sciences have views about the practitioners in other areas of the sciences. The views are variations on the “too linear” theme. What’s said about engineering profs is often just painful to hear. E.g., “Over there in engineering, they are very rigid and digital…”

  3. Yes, this is often said about men in the context of mothering. This is offered as the reason why men are not as effective as women at having several balls in the air as is required of the primary caregiving parent of young children. It is said that men cannot perform several fairly unrelated tasks (e.g. feed the baby while doing the laundry and making phone calls while cooking dinner for the rest of the family, and check feminist philosophers blog website) all at the same time.

  4. philosopher queen, I appreciate the covert reminder that of couse we evolved to feed, phone, clean, email, etc., all at the same time. Such was the foresight of the benevolent Mother Nature. :)

  5. ok, but I wouldn’t say we evolved to do this, if you mean this is our purpose . . .

  6. My 12 year old niece consistently performs at the top of her class in math and science. She is very ambitious and never fails to win the math competitions in her class. Her male math teacher expressed his surprise at her ability saying, “Usually girls are better in English and reading and boys are better in math in science. Your ability is unusual.” She is made to feel different because she is (a) competitive and (b) gifted in math. Girls are supposed to be neither.

    At this stage in her development, she thinks his observations reflect his inferior intellect, “he’s stupid” she shrugs. But I wonder how long it will be before the constant onslaught of sex-role stereotypes and gender myths start to erode her self esteem. More and more schools are embracing the “Boys and girls learn differently” philosophy, seemingly resigning themselves to the “fact” that girls=English and reading and boys=math and science. This movement seems damaging to both sexes.

    My niece, being intelligent, knows the score. She can pick up on the attitudes of her authority figures. Therefore, she has already started making small excuses for her abilities, “I mean, it’s not like I’m a geek or anything, I like being creative too, I love to write, too.” I remind her there is no reason why she cannot excel at both and being talented in math does not make one a geek. It’s very hard and while typing this, my outrage thickens.

  7. Cassandra, it is infuriating that all this still goes on.

    I’m wondering if talking to her about outmoded stereotypes that don’t really fit our lives any more might help. That might let her talk about pressures she experiences without focusing entirely on maths, which might just increase her feeling she has a problem.

  8. I would be very interested to hear the other side of this too. I work in banking and have heard (in an official environment) that women are not as good with analysis but that men are not as good at working in or managing teams. On the one hand my company advocates Diversity and seems to be implying their understanding of the differences make for more varied staff in teams but I often see men taking as much offence as I do at the assumption they they are not good at communicating, or working with others towards a common goal.

  9. Lucy’s comment makes me think about how “essentialist” stereotypes can arise even with the best of intentions. Suppose that an organization gets to the point that it acknowledges that there are values in perspectives beyond a privileged-white-male norm, and it wants to take these perspectives into account (that is, “embracing diversity”). It’s natural to think in terms of what these perspectives might offer and to use mental shortcuts (“heuristics”) to represent these generalizations. This can get reduced pretty quickly to, “Women’s strengths are…” and “Latinas’ strengths are…” Unfortunately, this has the effects of dismissing variability and also sometimes of reducing each named group to a single perspective, e.g., “What women think.”

    I suppose the solution is to invite those perspectives by including members of underrepresented groups in decision-making, but then carefully not speculating in advance as to what the nature of those perspectives will be – but that’s a lot to expect consistently from an individual, let alone an organization.

  10. Lucy, I’m trying to figure out whether all the areas that are – or were until recently – pretty much exclusively male show your company is obviously wrong. These include religions, the military, higher education and so on. I’m do think there are deep problems with these organizations, but not having effective committees doesn’t seem one of them. On the other hand, maybe much of what goes wrong just is a matter of committee decisions.

    There is the cliche, of course, of the male brain (e.g., Baron Cohen [NOT Sasha BC] at Cambridge) as great at mathematics and not at human relationships, but there are so many male dominated areas with committees that I’m surprised to see hear of it applied to them.

    lga: nice point. It’s the essentialist thinking that is probably at work here. One would want to know the gender of those telling the story.

    I suppose it might also be generalizaing from too few instances. Maybe there’s something in the company that is making men feel defensive at meetings.

  11. Ambiguous polling, surely…

    “Have you heard someone say that women/girls cannot excel when abstract reasoning is required?”

    … where ‘not heard’ is consistent with it both going on (people asserting that women/girls can’t excel), AND with the opposite (people insisting that women/girls can so excel). I’ve only ever heard anyone assert that women/girls CAN and DO excel at abstract reasoning (until reading the comments above), but I take it that a tick in the ‘no’ box doesn’t really make that kind of statement at all.. Not sure how you’re hearing the implicatures…

  12. I am a Black woman, a feminist and a Blogger and
    I recently wrote about Girls and Math.


    The conversation was interesting in that I had to struggle with my male readers on the impact of how girls are socialized to think that being good at math is not seen as being feminine, in American culture in general.

    They were stuck using their personal experience as evidence of how women in society at large are treated re-math, philosophy, etc.

  13. m.dot,

    I immediately used your link and my browser said it could not open the site. I got the url from Google and I’m going to paste it here again, just in case there’s a problem with yours that I can’t see:

    You have a great site!

    Have you seen our previous posts on women and math? The link below should bring most of them up, along with some irrelevant ones too.

    UPDATE: my link got the same result, but then when I clicked on the arrow to take me to the previous page, I was able to see the modelminority page.

  14. Jore, I was really just interested in how many people encouter people who are willing to say that. For that purpose, “no I never hear it discussed” and “no, I hear the opposite” go into the same category.

    What the answers suggest is that a lot of our readers have heard such a comment. BUT those of us backstage know that at least close to 1,500 readers have been to the blog since the post was put up, so there’s a real question about why we didn’t get more of a response. This would be more puzzling if the backstage figures didn’t indicate that most of our posts over a few days don’t get clicked on, while some of the blog assessment sites tell us that visitors read over one post per visit.

    It really could defeat one. It may be, as Jender recently suggested, not terribly worth our while trying to get at what’s going on.

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