Calling All Mathematicians: Math Can Be Social and Creative too!

Thursday, March 13 2014

Mentoring has become the sexy topic of the year. Beginning with National Mentoring Month and extending into the spheres of professional coaching. What has now become undeniable is the importance of having visible female role models that girls can relate to in all fields. 

But what if the solution isn't just about mentoring?


STEM jobs20140312-fta-stem-women-math-girl355 (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) have an especially low rate of female representation. How can we change that?

How can we make Math attractive to girls too?

P. Vasile, a Boston High School math teacher, shares her experience finding a way to combine her love of numbers and people gives some clues to how to make keep women in stem:

Math's Creative and Social Dimensions Cannot be Ignored.
I have been teaching high school math for the past decade and I cannot say that I have noted any differences between male and female student achievement. Some years my strongest students are girls, some years they are boys. I see no differences in terms of homework completion, test performance, quality of projects, or participation.

As a college student in the late 90's I can say that there were far fewer women than men in my math courses, particularly in those only for math majors. I can only speculate as to why this was true. What drew me to math was the sense of completion at arriving at a final answer (unlike an essay which can be rewritten, edited, and critiqued forever). I enjoyed the conquest of mastering a concept. I loved the experimentation with numbers and concepts, experiments free of lab equipment or the need to gather and persuade participants.

What repelled me from math however, was the lack of human interaction. There was a certain threshold of time when the peace of quietly studying alone shifted into a deficit of social interaction, and studying alone was not the only problem - studying literary characters or historical figures could satisfy my need to explore life's emotional questions, but engaging with numbers all day could not. I often worked alone to find my ideal groove and pace; it was hard to find classmates who were not notably faster or notably slower than me. The drawback of working alone was that I could not tolerate more than 4 hours per day with only mathematical ideas in my head.

Before graduating, I signed on as a stock market data analyst at a consulting firm. When I told one of my Spanish professors her response was, "You'll never last with all those number crunchers. You are too creative." Sure enough, I spent less than a year in that job, for the most part with just the computer and me, and promptly transitioned to teaching math.

Teaching not only allows me to enjoy playing with math, but also enriches my social life because of the interaction with students and colleagues. Furthermore, it was not until I began professional development for teachers that I really learned how to study math in a group rather than in solitary confinement. I believe that some students who show talent in math at the high school level can continue to pursue the field (in a full day dose) as the culture of STEM fields becomes more group oriented and interactive for at least a good portion of the day.

The freedom to exercise creativity is also an attraction to the STEM field. Some entry level jobs in data analysis or laboratory work involve following directions day after day and it is not until an employee earns a graduate degree that she may begin to experiment and create. A perfunctory "in between college and graduate school" experience may also discourage women in STEM. I believe that to keep both genders in the STEM field it may be critical for organizations to trust young women with some creative opportunities even before she earns a graduate degree.

Math ability is not enough to keep a woman in a STEM field. Many of us must also find the social and creative dimensions in order to enjoy a balanced and fulfilling career.


Ms. Vasile is a Sheltered English Immersion Math teacher in Boston. She loves art, traveling and more importantly spending time playing with her son, Raymond.


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