Mansplaining in math discourages female students


Graphic by Lara Gillingham

Sadie Wyatt

It’s not often that I feel 100 percent confident in a math answer. When I do, and sometimes when I don’t, I will still raise my hand to share it. That’s how a class is supposed to run. But confident or not, too often I find my voice being shouted over by male classmates. I watch as my female classmates are given no time to think and are spoken over, shouted over, or mansplained to when they get an answer wrong. Sometimes this even happens when we get an answer right.

I was puzzled when I first noticed this. It wasn’t until I dug deeper into the issue that I realized this isn’t just me. This isn’t just my class. This is a problem throughout Wilson, and one that needs to be addressed.

In speaking casually with my friends, the issue would sometimes come up. They expressed to me a feeling of being looked down upon, especially in their math classes.

On the first day of an advanced math class, one friend was asked by a male student if she was even supposed to be there. The more I heard from others about this, the more I noticed it myself. But even though it was talked about, it was considered a short-term complaint, or something that they wanted to make sure they weren’t imagining.

But, when someone speaks over you constantly or makes you feel stupid, it discourages you from speaking up. Sophomore Mara Jaffe recounted that boys “would even talk over the teacher to try to explain it to me, even if they were incorrect.”

Another student, who asked to remain anonymous, said that she got judged for getting an answer wrong far more than boys who made similar mistakes. “I don’t think it’s the boys’ fault in general,” she said, “I think it’s the fact that nobody ever stops them or says ‘Hey, that’s not a thing you should be doing.’”

Math teacher Patricia Milikin admits she has seen these instances occur, but does her best to stop them. “I’ll usually come up to them if they think they’re all that and say there are other ways to think about math. I’ll try to bring them down a couple of pegs,” she said. She noted that mansplaining is not only an issue among her students, but also among colleagues. These instances are not just minor inconveniences or frustrations in the classroom. The issue plays a key role in what careers females pursue.

The number of women in STEM-based careers has increased rapidly in the last 40 years, but more math-based parts of STEM have lagged behind. While women now make up a majority (50.7 percent) of medical students enrolled in the U.S., only 14 percent of engineers in the U.S. are women, according to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and the Association of American Medical Colleges. Additionally, researchers at Stanford University found that female engineering students perform just as well as men but are more likely to switch to a different major because they don’t believe that their skills are good enough and they don’t feel like they fit in.

The earlier these ideas are planted in our heads, the less likely we are to want to pursue a field where our abilities and qualifications are questioned every day. If we are told our whole lives that it is okay for someone to talk over us in math, we will not want to pursue a math-oriented career.

It is important not only for Wilson but for the country to address these issues. It is a great thing that there are more women in STEM, but the involvement of these women should not be limited to certain fields. To fix this, we need to address the problems that occur when these women are younger, the problems that cause them to lose their desire to go into a math-related field. This starts when a woman is talked over, yelled over, mansplained to, or picked on in math class.

So yes, it’s not often I feel 100 percent confident in a math answer. But maybe that’s not always my fault. Maybe that’s because so often I am told that I am wrong, that my answer isn’t good enough, that I have convinced myself of such. In math there is right and wrong, but there is nothing wrong with being wrong and it isn’t something for which you should be shamed. I have always enjoyed attending a co-ed high school. However, girls at single-sex schools and all-female colleges have recounted to me how powerful it is to be in a room where all women are heard. This is not to say that girls and boys should be separated in math classes. Perhaps raising awareness of these issues throughout our school and beyond can help create a more equal and compelling environment for all students of all genders.