Solving for XX

Jonathan David Farley, D.Phil. (University of Oxford)
Thursday October 23, 2014 - 08:21:00 PM
Mathematician Zeinab Bandpey
Mathematician Zeinab Bandpey

Last year, an assistant director for Elementary contacted me. The plot of an episode of the crime drama starring Lucy Liu (Kill Bill, Charlie’s Angels), entitled, “Solve for x,” centered around a mathematician vying for the top prize in the number-wizarding world. I encouraged CBS to make a big deal of the fact that the mathematician was a woman─women at the highest levels of math are so thin on the ground, girl calculators need to find contemporary role models wherever they can, even in works of fiction. 

This has now changed radically. 

This fall, Maryam Mirzakhani, an Iranian woman working at Stanford University, won mathematics’ “Nobel Prize,” the Fields Medal. 

It has not always been easy for women in mathematics. 

I have been interested in female mathematicians since at least 2005, when Larry Summers, then president of Harvard University, gave a memorable speech arguing that the reason few women seem to excel in mathematics may be genetic, citing as evidence the indisputable fact that girls play with dolls and not chemistry sets. Mattel did, after all, make a Barbie doll that said, “Math class is tough,” and Forever 21 made a blouse that said, “Allergic to Algebra.” 

In reality, two studies published in 1990 and 1995 found “a slight female advantage in computation in elementary and middle school,” and, according to the 2009 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, “girls have now reached parity with boys in mathematics performance in the U.S.” 

So with all due respect to Larry Summers─that is, none─the problem is something else. There is some other reason only 31% of U.S. doctorates in mathematics went to women in 2007, some other reason women were only 12% of the math and statistics professors at the top 50 universities. 

After attending a seminar on the female orgasm at Stanford University's Institute for Research on Women and Gender, I decided to do something about it. (The math gap, that is.) I conceived of a symposium on women and math called, “Proof and Prejudice,” co-organizing it with what is now the Clayman Institute. We brought in luminaries such as Dancing with the StarsDanica McKellar (The Wonder Years, The West Wing), who graduated summa cum laudefrom the University of California at Los Angeles with a degree in math, even co-authoring a research paper as an undergraduate, which is highly unusual. 

She later asked me to provide a quote for the back cover of her first math textbook. Three of her textbooks went on to become New York Times best sellers. These books represented the beginning of a solution to math’s parity problem: Danica wrote math books aimed at girls

You see, the solution may be as simple as showing girls that you can be a girl and do math. As science presenter Cara Santa Maria once said, she would like to see a shirt that reads, “I’m pretty, and I rule at math.” 

Danica told me for this essay, “The problem isn’t that girls don’t do math as well as boys. The problem is that, in spite of good test scores, girls don’t see themselves as capable of doing math as well as boys. So as soon as they hit a stumbling block, instead of seeing it as a temporary obstacle that can be overcome, they more often see it as evidence of what they’ve ‘known’ all along─that they don’t belong in math. That it’s not really ‘for them.’ It’s a perception issue, it’s a societal issue, and the only way around it is to do what we can to break stereotypes, and to bombard girls with the opposite of the limiting female characters they get from most media: positive role models to show them, ‘You have every potential within you. Develop your brain. You belong!’ I do this in my books, and we all have the ability to do it in our every day lives. I’m encouraged by Mirzakhani’s success and I hope that its effects ripple outwards to our girls. And how can we help this? By talking about it. Let’s tell girls so they know in their hearts: ‘This can be you.’” 

Danica’s solution to the equation xy-x2=0 is elegant, even if the top of Harvard’s food chain couldn’t see it: Make math appealing to girls by linking it with what they already find appealing. And start in elementary school with the photo on the left, and the message 

This is what a mathematician looks like. 


Dr. Jonathan David Farley has been a Visiting Professor of Mathematics at Caltech, a Visiting Associate Professor of Applied Mathematics at MIT, and a Visiting Scholar of the Department of Mathematics at Harvard University. Versions of parts of this essay appeared in the Berkeley Daily Planet, Harvard Crimson and Huffington Post.