Hard Maths and Empathy

After the recent widely publicised comments by Katharine Birbalsingh that ‘girls don’t like hard maths’, she followed it up with a tweet which said:

‘Why are people scared of the evidence that says that in general men are more systematic and women more empathetic. 

Why can’t we say that out loud?

That doesn’t mean there won’t be exceptions to this.

Why do we have to pretend that we are all exactly the same?’

My immediate response to this statement is a question: in a perfect world, would we expect an equal proportion of all genders to be studying each subject at sixth form? Maybe, but maybe not. The problem is that the statement from Katherine gives weight to all those who believe that genetics and gender plays a part in being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at a subject. It ignores all the cultural and societal constraints in place that give rise to girls perceiving certain subjects (and to be clear, these are often STEM subjects), as being “for boys”.

This gives rise to the much more important question: Why don’t more girls study mathematics at A-Level and beyond? We know that girls are just as capable of understanding the most advanced areas of maths as boys, so why don’t they pursue those advanced areas? The answers we have show that there are many nuanced and interlinking factors. There is still undoubtedly additional research required.

Is it true that girls are more empathetic? Well, no. Research increasingly shows that this is an outdated view, with the current belief that empathy is in fact influenced by contextual factors and can be biased by stereotypes (eg, gender-based roles). The more important question here is what is driving society to view women as nurturing, empathetic beings who prefer to be in a support roles? That is, why are empathy and logical/systematic thinking seen as exclusive? I don’t believe that these traits are exclusive. When you combine a nurturing nature with the ability to be systematic and logical, you end up with a highly effective problem-solver.

The truth is that mathematical and statistical thinking is very empathetic – it requires the mathematician to understand how the different aspect being considered relate to one another. It is no different to a deep awareness of how other people feel.

So, let’s say this out loud: Female mathematicians and statisticians are not ‘exceptions’ to the rule.   Girls like maths. More than that, girls like ‘hard maths’ and some become the women who are the current Presidents of the Royal Statistical Society, The London Mathematical Society and The Council for Mathematical Sciences.

The mathematical and statistical community does not pretend that everyone is the same. However, instead of focusing on gender assigning your level of empathy, perhaps we should look at the root causes that stop girls seeing mathematics, statistics and STEM subjects as a less interesting career? Only by tackling this problem will we ever get to the true prevalence of girls wanting to study STEM subjects. However, until that problem is answered, there is a home for everyone who likes ‘hard maths’ at the Royal Statistical Society where I am proud to be the Vice President for Education and Statistical Literacy.

By Sophie Carr
Categorized as blog

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *