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Maths, and why women end up more vulnerable to the Silly Mistake

Sneha Vakharia | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:49 IST

The disdain for mathematics usually begins with a silly mistake.

A silly mistake is a very particular kind of mistake. It's one where a student knows all the rules and has successfully mastered her multiplication tables. She's completed her work, and is looking expectantly around to see if she's solved the problem right. Does her answer match?

It doesn't. Because somewhere hidden deep within the scribbles, below the problem, above the incorrect solution, there's a sleight of hand and twist of fate. A missed division sign, a four mistaken for a two, a forgotten zero, a misplaced decimal.

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Within academia, the silly mistake is peculiar to mathematics (till she encounters coding, but we'll come to that later). One cannot make a silly mistake in History or Hindi. One has either learned the subject matter and will be directly rewarded for it, or will not. The learning of no other subject provides adequate opportunities for the silly mistake. Which makes it a great learning experience too.

Because eventually the same student will be confronted with lost keys, the book left on the bus, the toothpaste cap left open, the unsent email, the gas cylinder left on - adult experiences to mirror the first time she made a silly mistake.

We bet her English essays didn't quite prepare her for that.

And yet she will vilify mathematics. When in fact she is vilifying her inability to conquer the silly mistake.

'That women are not logical is one of the recognized conventions of social life'

What she could have overcome with sheer diligence - hours of painstakingly diagnosing her own pattern of silly mistakes and correcting them - will be glossed over with this:

Maths Sucks.

She will scribble this on her desk, maybe engrave it with a protractor she is loathe to use, and her peers will nod empathetically.

And by the time she has to deal with more complex affairs - trigonometry and calculus, perhaps - the carcass of her unutilised mathematical abilities will lie desolate and forgotten, in the graveyard of silly mistakes.

Children can't diagnose a confirmation bias

Boys and girls are both equally vulnerable to the minefield that is the silly mistake. And they are both equally resistant to the labour one must invest to overcome it. But in that battle, one gender is repeatedly coming off worse.

The girl is not operating in void. She is operating in a world where till no so long ago, it was okay for a respected academic to begin an essay, titled Women and Logic with this:

"That women are not logical is one of the recognized conventions of social life."

She's operating in a world where a celebrated psychiatrist and everyone's favourite feminist, Carl Jung believed that feminine archetypes were less prone to logic and reason than her masculine counterparts.

Where some scientists gave some uninformed brouhaha about women operating a different side of the brain. Or a smaller brain. Or a lesser brain. Or a more oblong or more circular or more obtuse one.

Where Chanda Kochar, celebrated for being what every woman might be, plainly stated that women are less able to compete with men in Mathematics. And MBA examinations ought to make allowances for that.

Where all STEM professions - which mandate some degree of taste for mathematics - are woefully under-populated by women. Where no major world corporation - even Google and Facebook - is able to hire more than 20% women in technology roles. (For Twitter it's a dismal 10%.)

Where a Barbie doll says "Maths is hard, let's go shopping".

Where 4% of all app developers are female and 7% of technology startups are led by women. 2% of people in the open-source software field are women. 11% of venture capitalists are women. And 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women.

There's a full-blown pandemic sitting under our noses. The catalyst is misogyny. The germ, the silly mistake.

The pathology of a germ

And as a woman progresses over the course of her career, the problem becomes increasingly complex.

A female elementary teacher with fear of math will transfer that fear to her female students. And then those little women may perform worse in a mathematics test, for fear of proving the stereotypes right.

Their sense of belonging within male-dominated STEM professions diminishes. And the stereotypes begin to negatively impact their ability to identify with math-related majors.

And she begins to justify all those things. With memories of an unloved red cross in her notebook a remnant of an entirely human - and not specifically female - silly mistake.

Bollywood saves the day

There's now a Bollywood film about the girl child and mathematics.

Nil Battey Sannata (literally translated to zero divided by zero) deals with a young girl and her perennial disdain for maths. And the fact that proficiency at mathematics is not a function of skill or innate ability, but of love, patience and willingness to conquer the silly mistake.

Take a moment to pause and marvel at the fact. And why it's such a big deal.

It was always inevitable that we would eventually have a film about female body issues (Dum Lagake Haisha/Gippy/every '90s film with a dusky female supporting actor). It was also inevitable that we would eventually have a film about homosexuality (My Brother Nikhil/Aligarh/Kapoor and Sons). And a film about rape. And about domestic abuse. And every manner of Madhur Bhandarkar issue.

Because those were things we already cared about.

If there were a hashtag, or a protest at Jantar Mantar, a social media campaign, or a particularly successful Kickstarter campaign, then eventually we'd get a Bollywood film about it.

Because Bollywood's good at that. They're good at sensing changes in temperature. Then building song-and-dance celluloid narratives with moralistic wand-waving when the audience is ripe.

But Nil Battey Sannata deals with an issue for which the audience isn't ripe. The audience hasn't even recognised the scope, breath and implications of the problem it's seeing.

Women in maths, as a massive, debilitating social issue is territory no big budget feature film in the world has dealt with before.

Which is why the very premise of the film is spectacular.

Because it put its finger on an unacknowledged social issue plaguing every country. And every industry. One the rest simply haven't bothered to address.

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First published: 25 April 2016, 11:12 IST
Sneha Vakharia @sneha_vakharia

A Beyonce-loving feminist who writes about literature and lifestyle at Catch, Sneha is a fan of limericks, sonnets, pantoums and anything that rhymes. She loves economics and music, and has found a happy profession in neither. When not being consumed by the great novels of drama and tragedy, she pays the world back with poems of nostalgia, journals of heartbreak and critiques of the comfortable.