Help! Are women poor in Math and Finance?—Part 1
A reader who wants to be called Joshua writes: I enjoy reading your family business columns, and also your previous education columns, including those on math. That is why I think you are the best person to shed light on my problem.
I am in my 40s, a second-generation head of a food company in Luzon. I am the eldest, with two brothers and two sisters. Our parents are in their early 70s, and largely, the running of our company has been left to us. We are trying to professionalize our company, and many of your columns serve as our guidelines as we go about transforming our business to a bigger one with quality standards. Thank you for your practical advice.
My brothers and sisters and I get along fine most of the time. We work hard, some harder than others. But we are siblings, so we let lapses slide.
My main problem is this: My brothers feel that women are not as good as men in Math. My middle brother, an engineer, says that no woman has ever won a Nobel Prize in Math, unlike men such as Alan Turing. Do you think this is true?
Our mother used to handle the finances in the family business, but my two sisters are not good at numbers. I asked my middle brother to take care of the finances. My sisters are fine with this arrangement, because Math was their worst subject in school. Both sisters handle supply chain, but they are struggling and they want us to get help.
My middle brother does not want to do the finances, because he says he is already busy with operations. Our youngest brother is okay in Math, but he is quite spoiled and gets away with many things. We placed him in charge of information technology. He spends much time on the computer.
I am pretty good at Math. Math is my favorite subject, and I used to read your Math columns. I bought your Math book “Eureka!” which helped me a lot in school. Now as the head of the family business, I oversee most of the day-to-day affairs, and I do not have the time to focus on the finances. Do you think my sisters can be trained to do finance even if they are poor in Math? What do you suggest?
I read your letter with a mixture of amusement and bemusement. I would first like to thank you for your support of my writing through the decades. I have been writing about Math for the Inquirer since March 1991 (the first piece entitled “Why be afraid of Math” ran in the Sunday Inquirer Magazine). I am glad that my math columns helped you in school, and that you like Math and do well at it.
However, since you are familiar with my work, you must know how I feel and what I believe about the gender issue in Math. Are boys better than girls in Math? Not necessarily.
Cross-cultural studies show that in elementary school, girls fare better than boys in computation, while boys appear to do better in problem solving. Female students in high school perform better on algebra tests, particularly on portions such as simplifying expressions and applying properties of exponents, while boys may have an edge in word problems.
The biggest advantage males seem to have over females occurs in geometry: boys generally do better in spatial perception. Why? Perhaps they have more testosterone, or they have bigger parietal areas in the brain. Or perhaps they were raised to play with building materials such as Lego, activating spatial abilities, while their sisters played with dolls, activating empathy. Or maybe tasks, such as driving, are generally done by males at younger ages than females.
In college, statistics do show that more males enter science fields that are heavy in Math, such as Physics and Engineering, than females.
I cannot resist correcting your brother’s misconception about women and the Nobel Prize. No one, man or woman, has ever won a Nobel in Math, simply because this does not exist. Nobels are given for achievements in Physics, Chemistry, Economics, Literature, and Peace, but not Math.
The equivalent of the Nobel for Math is the Fields Medal, awarded every four years. Most of the winners have been male, but I am happy to say that last year, Iranian native Maryam Mirzakhani of Stanford University in California won the Fields. Despite the statistics I stated above, Mirzakhani won for her work in Geometry—specifically, for the dynamics of Riemann surfaces.
Dynamics problems occur in real life, such as movements among the sun, the earth, and our moon. Though many dynamics problems do not have simple solutions, Mirzakhani discovered that their paths or trajectories still follow laws of algebra.
Mirzakhani possesses mastery of Algebra, Geometry, and other Math fields that enables her to make sense of dynamical systems. According to Curtis McMullen of Harvard University, her talents “combine superb problem-solving ability, ambitious mathematical vision and fluency in many disciplines, which is unusual in the modern era, when considerable specialization is often required to reach the frontier.”
(To be concluded next week)
Queena N. Lee-Chua is on the Board of Directors of Ateneo de Manila University’s Family Business Development Center. Get her book “Successful Family Businesses” at the University Press (e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.) E-mail the author at email@example.com.