Saturday, September 02, 2006

Women who fear math

By Guest Columnist Genet

The other day, I was listening to a woman on the Trinity Broadcasting Network discuss her book on women and money. Last night a Washington Post writer talked about her new book on women and money from an African-American perspective on the Tavis Smiley show.

While both women had some valid points, I was amazed that none of the women made the obvious suggestions, that if you don't know much about money, you should hire a financial planner to help.

It is fashionable to tell women that they should "do it yourself," and this advice is insidious, because men, who have more than $1 million net worth, always have advisors to aid them.

Perhaps what women object to is hiring advisors who don't really care or listen to women's concerns. The number one thing I often hear from women is how they are bad at math. They throw their hands up in the air and do nothing. How did women become so "bad at math?" Now that is a political question actually. I can only trace my academic history to get at the answers.

I think these feelings are valid, because the math classes of my youth were completely male-dominated. The shop classes at my high school had no girls in them except me. This kind of practical analytical thinking is rarely encouraged in women even today. Men assume women are "illogical" and bad at numbers. But it is by male standards that women struggle with numbers. I love them but only when I make math my own.

I too once struggled with feeling like I was the dumbest kid in the class as far as math was concerned, and when I'd peek into the computer lab or physics classes, you'd see no girls in them at all. An all male world is a hostile work environment by definition. High school and junior high boys are the worst in the world in terms of social skills.

My high school friend Betsy, had dreams of going to medical school. We both took Latin, and the boys were just dreadful. In the evil blatant sexism of '70s eras high schools, Betsy's intellectual self was a beacon of hope to my cerebral lesbian nature. Betsy was unflappable in the face of a jerky bullying blabbermouth boy named Chuck. She'd derail him with her wit, but he persisted in making fun of her class questions and attention to detail. "Oh, Betsy, stop those picky questions!" he'd typically say. Boys are very threatened by smart girls and Betsy was smart and proud of it. She was also very kind to me. Smart and kind is a combination I adore in women.

The Latin teacher, who I actually really liked, didn't seem to understand the hostile environment to girls that was right in front of his face in Latin I, II, and III. This went on for three whole years. Still Betsy and I stuck it out, because we were fascinated with the ancient world, I discovered the Amazons who fought Caesar's armies and imagined myself doing battle with them. I had not heard of the Labrys yet, so in my imagination, I charged them with a regular sword and shield.

To this day, I smile at Latin phrases that are a basis for the English language. Quid pro quo, sic semper tyrannis, and in hoc signo vinces are some of my favorite Latin phrases. I was exceeding proud of my ability to translate in hoc signo vinces because it was written on the coat of arms symbol on all the red Pall Mall cigarette packages of that era. My Mom smoked them, not me! I also smile at my memory of one of the smartest girls in my high school.

Many years later, Betsy and I accidentally met again on a Greyhound bus heading toward Madison, WI. She had gotten into Harvard medical school, and I was living my dreams as an intern in Washington, D.C. We laughed over the stupid Chuck, and then Betsy gave me a gift. She reported to me that a mutual high school friend of ours was a lesbian and living happily with another very smart Jewish girl. This was stunning news to me since all the lesbians were closeted in high school.

At the time I had that Greyhound bus conversation with Betsy, I was still in the closet too. Betsy somehow knew this, and this was her way of letting me know that she thought I was perfect just as I was. She was tactful enough to know how to tell me this while respecting my closeted self at that time.

High school was a very lonely time for me. I can safely say that I had no friends at all. By this, I mean, no one really knew my true self. High school was the last bastion of what Adrienne Rich later called "Compulsory Heterosexuality." Homecoming, football games, dating, everything is geared toward heterosexual youth, and there is no place for serious intellectually-driven lesbians. Things don't change much, think Columbine High School, for example.

I never went back and I have no contact with anyone I knew from that time. But I do have fond memories of a few straight girls who were exceptionally kind to me. Several of the girls said I made so many of the classes exciting and interesting by my enthusiasm. I was passionate about learning and genuinely excited about the teachers, who were some of the best in the nation. I was unafraid of the boys and perfectly willing to do intellectual and physical battle with them. After all, even at the age of 14, I was the Amazon destined to defeat Roman armies.

FOOTNOTES: Quid pro quo means "something for something, tit for tat." Sic semper tyrannis is "thus be it always with tyrants," and in hoc signo vines is "in this sign we will conquer"