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James E. Mann, Jr.

Gender Divided

Claudia Henrion's Women and Mathematics: The Addition of Difference clearly has an appeal to specialists, but it is worth reading even if one's specialty is neither mathematics nor women. The book addresses a question of particular relevance in a pluralistic society: How does an exclusive community that has its own specialized language reach out to those on the outside and enfold them into the culture of the community? It is often the case that those in the community may not be able to see the barriers that surround them, even though they may wish to encourage wider participation by outsiders. It seems to me that this problem is one that religious communities share with mathematicians, and Henrion's book may offer some helpful strategies for inclusion.

In the smaller picture, the book is about the mathematics community and why this community has not been open to women. To answer that question, Henrion interviewed nine women who have made their way in to mathematics and have made substantial contributions to the field; she asked these women what obstacles they have encountered and how they have dealt with them. (Three of Henrion's interview-subjects are bold enough to say that religion is a moving force in their lives; two of these women are Christians.)

From their responses, Henrion concludes that six widespread misconceptions—or "myths," as she calls them—discourage women from pursuing a career in mathematics:

  • mathematicians work in complete isolation;
  • women and mathematics don't mix;
  • mathematicians do their best work in their youth;
  • mathematics and politics don't mix;
  • only white males do mathematics;
  • mathematics is a realm of complete objectivity.

Henrion devotes a chapter to each myth. She begins by presenting the myth in a rather abstract way; then she debunks it. Finally, the chapter concludes with a synopsis of an interview with one or sometimes two women in mathematics.

How strong is Henrion's case against mathematics? Without trying to excuse what is an obvious ...

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