Newsletter #54     Dutch Women in Mathematics

There has been something of a shortage of reportable news recently. We managaed to have a picnic on the most gloriously summery of days, but the teaching/learning aspects had mostly to do with recipes and the need for sunscreen. So instead I shall smuggle in the results of my most recent effort at educating myself: an education column for the upcoming newsletter of the Association for Women in Mathematics. Non-local, but some aspects of it seem to me to have pretty universal implications.

Several months ago I reported with glee my discovery of the Netherlands' equivalent of the AWM, and promised to produce a more thorough description in the future. That future has now partially arrived: reading their literature and cruising around their web-page has netted me some interesting information, which I shall synthesize below. However, since the latest of their books in my possession dates from the late eighties, I am skeptical that I am conveying a really current picture of the organization. On the other hand, reading the book in question tuned me in on a number of issues and studies I had been unaware of, not just on their side of the Atlantic, but on ours. So I shall go ahead and describe it a bit.

To give a little of the framework: the organization which originated as Werkgroep Vrouwen en Wiskunde (Workgroup of Women and Mathematics) merged in the course of the eighties with several other working groups, and resulting organization is known as VeEx (Women in the Exact Sciences). Their most visible aspect is the effort to make all the exact sciences attractive to girls in middle and high schools (which extend up into what we would label early college.) To this end they run workshops and contests and festive days, and publish books of "friendly mathematics" and mini-biographies of mathematical women. And, on a slightly more aggressive and formal note, they helped support a study by one Ilja Mottier which resulted in her book entitled "Emancipatie Aspecten in Schoolboeken" (that doesn't need translating, does it?) That's the one in which I found a number of points of interest, so I shall give a few details.

Mottier begins by harking back to the early rise of feminism in the seventies, which resulted in the articulation of the following major needs: 1) breaking down the limitations imposed by role stereotypes; 2) catching up in areas in which women are behind; 3) furthering the viewing of traditionally male and female roles as equally valuable. The next question is how these can be attacked in the education system. In approaching this, Mottier looked into studies from all over the world. She found a fair number of general studies, especially in English [I was particularly intrigued by the title "And Jill came tumbling after"], which led her to the conclusion that in schools needs 1 and 2 were unchanged. Need 3, on the other hand, required a conversion: within education, the need is for equal possibilities to identify with the subject under study. While there are numerous factors which have an influence in school, the one which is uniformly present, and for which it is actually possible to establish guidelines, is the textbook. Publishers greeted this idea with enthusiasm, and the government went so far as to provide a subsidy to make it possible, so Mottier pursued it. Her first question was then: Is it possible to establish such guidelines? To this her eventual reply was "Yes, but with some strings attached". While the first two needs could be attacked with some generic tools, the third is subject-specific. Studies from various countries, most notably the U.S., had a lot to say about use of language and illustrations on a general basis, with a fair international consistency. Very few attempts at analyzing how textbooks dealt with women's roles in specific subjects turned up. So rather than looking at results of previous studies, she set herself to producing guidelines for writing textbooks which make it possible for women to identify with the subject. She chose four subjects: physics, technology, history and languages, the first because of its long established tradition of attracting almost no females, the second because it has as yet no tradition, but is swiftly establishing itself as a male domain.

So how can one go about making physics a subject in which girls can imagine themselves taking part? Well, for a start, find out what aspects of the field tend to interest them in the first place. Mottier conducted surveys and interviews and informal queries, and in the end came up with five areas in which she was able to formulate guidelines towards making the subject more "woman-friendly": physics should be shown as being related to daily life and to the human body, and should be studied in relationship with society, with careers, and with its own historical development. These are not interests exclusive to girls, but they are the aspects that are most likely to attract them, and that have tended to be the least emphasized in the textbooks in the past.

These and similar subject-specific guidelines for the other three subjects listed were published in the mid-eighties, with tactics for revisions built in and with accompanying pressure for guidelines for other subjects. At the time at which the book was written, not long after the guidelines were published, the publishing industry appeared to be highly receptive. On the other hand, one of the studies Mottier cites was an observation of the illustrations in a physics textbook series before and after the passage of the English Sex Discrimination Act in 1975. Before it, women were drastically stereotyped. Afterwards there was no such problem--they simply disappeared. So it was with some trepidation that I approached my available sample set of all of three very recent Dutch high school math modules. The first thing to catch my eye was the yellow box at the start of each section situating the topic with respect to everyday life. Encouraged, I began studying illustrations. Small sample set, all pretty neutral--until I reached the last of them, and found in the same book not only men engaged in the domestic occupation of grocery shopping, but a woman looking ecstatic to be skydiving. I would say that progress has been made!

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