When it comes to math, language matters

Image by: Vincent Lin

When people in positions of responsibility use the excuse ‘math is hard’, it may not seem like much. But when you zoom out, it can be a casual dismissal of a huge part of what pushes us forward as a generation.

In an Opinion piece in Maclean’s, writer Anne Kingston claims that women and their capabilities in math are often still displayed as being incompatible. STEM fields are lacking in their representation of women, Kingston argued and you don’t have to look far to find the common trope that math is hard, especially for women.

Just last year, Kingston pointed out, current Minister of the Status of Women, Maryam Monsef, stood in the House of Commons and held up a piece of paper with a difficult-looking formula, sending the message that calculating voter proportionality is a hard and intimidating task, therefore not one to be touched.

While Kingston focuses on the effect this defeatist attitude towards math has on underrepresented women, the nonsensical leap between math being difficult for one person and math being difficult in general affects many more people. Different people have different strengths and weaknesses — even politicians. Not being good at one thing doesn’t make you unintelligent. It means you’re not good at one thing.

Yet the more this statement, that ‘math is hard’, is normalized, the more inaccessible it makes math and technical fields seem to everyone. When people whose words are turned into national headlines constantly say ‘math is hard’, there are kids across the country who’re listening — some struggling with it and some excelling. And in light of the plunging math scores in recent years, it’s clear that children internalize what they hear.

Politicians don’t need to prove their prowess in mathematical equations to be able to complete their jobs. Holding them to an irrelevant standard that they have to be good at anything and everything doesn’t make sense. They should, however, be able to push themselves and rely on one another to approach all aspects of running a country, from calculating voter proportionality to drafting policy.

More than making math inaccessible, politicians and other representatives continuously reminding us that ‘math is hard’ seems also to perpetuate the idea that fields unrelated to math are easy — that the arts and humanities are the everyman’s field of study. The idea that certain fields are more valuable than others is dangerous when we consider the lack of funding given to these fields.

Regarding the specific issue of sexism in male-dominated fields, it’s time to do away with the notion that high-achieving women in traditionally male-dominated fields aren’t as qualified or are threatening. The conversation surrounding gender representation in STEM fields is often steered towards the institutional and not the social pushback — we talk about the number of students in the classroom seats, not the way they’re treated or others’ attitudes towards them.

But the language of math matters — what we say, the judgements we make, has an impact on the makeup of our institutions in a way we can’t calculate.  

Journal Editorial Board


Editorial, intelligence, mathematics, STEM

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

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