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Photograph courtesy of the authors

23 May 2023

STEM: Where Gender is the Division


If you’re speculating on the whereabouts of all the men at the University of Edinburgh, we can kindly direct you to ‘An Introduction to Linear Algebra’ classroom on a Wednesday afternoon.

We’d like to invite you to reminisce upon our first day of university. Already riddled with fresher’s week frets, walking into a maths classroom brimming with men (boys) who possess an acute complex about their mathematical superiority, does not particularly quell the nerves. You would think that the ability to turn heads when walking into a room would boost one’s self-esteem, however, a maths classroom assuredly bucks the trend in the most humbling of manners. Indeed, all eyes are not on you for being a hopeful six or higher out of ten, but instead because you are the only female to have entered the room. With that comes the sweet reminder of the prevalent assumption that women are inferior at maths; this classroom appears to be rife in that conviction. Having glanced around the room and spotted the singular other girl sitting on her own, the swift sense of relief is overwhelming. An immediate friendship blossoms in the knowledge that the other has also endured and overcome gender-based stereotypes to reach these two seats on a Wednesday afternoon.

This is our quaint little tale about how we, the authors, became best pals (aw). Almost four years down the line, we’re still best pals and the boys are still, on many occasions, insufferable! More often than not, we find ourselves infuriated by boys who undermine our abilities by talking over us, refuse to acknowledge our presence, and continue to mansplain fictitious theories and axioms. As the years have dragged on, we’ve developed our own subtle techniques to endure these antiquated clichés, namely, humbling them by calling them honey (Jemma’s favourite) or princess (Fleur’s favourite). Look at us, dismantling the patriarchy one term of endearment at a time! All jokes aside, it’s a privilege that this is the greatest problem we face everyday in the classroom. The tangible nature of prejudice, even in our fortunate circumstances, is but a tiny indication of the hardships experienced by those in less fortunate socioeconomic backgrounds.

In the same way that gender discrimination enters all disciplines, maths and science is no exception.


Throughout history, women have been denied a role in scientific endeavours, preventing them from contributing to the organisation of society and locating humanity in a wider cosmic scheme. A pretty brazen statement from us, but one that's undeniable. The male dominance within STEM has consistently shaped the understanding of our place in the universe, refracting reality through a biassed lens and leaving little room for a female narrative. Surely something as significant as weaving the fabric of our very existence deserves diversity of perspective and experience.

Many believe that science and maths are objective disciplines, independent of social systems, and to those we gladly say: take your head out of your arse. Indisputably, science and maths are culturally directed pursuits. The trajectory of invention and progress have been determined by the same power structures that inhibit the contribution from women and marginalised groups. So, it’s worth considering what a world would look like today, had these voices been allowed to play a part in STEM.

If scientific discoveries were fortified by a more diverse foundation - arguably by including women - there would be a greater implementation in matters concerning a wider spectrum of people. We’re not suggesting women’s involvement would remedy world strifes and give everyone clear skin, however, if scientific discoveries were used in a more democratic way then it would encourage more philanthropic implementation. There’s a social responsibility regarding how technological developments in science are put to use. Decisions that affect all should be determined by all. Instead of rigorous innovations in warfare or excessive funding into billionaires’ playdates, perhaps, with greater representation, maths and science would have a more human centred ethos, operating with social welfare as a principal tenet.

Greater representation could encourage further advancements in fields such as medicine, environmental deterioration and poverty alleviation. Specifically in contemplating the potential advancements of female-related diseases which remain largely under researched such as endometriosis, autism diagnoses in women, and postpartum depression. It is both difficult and disappointing to imagine what might have already been accomplished in these areas, had society been more welcoming to women entering STEM. Who knows, scabies might not have made a rampant return around Edinburgh New Town this year if women had anything to do with it.

Today, the problem women face is not a direct and explicit exclusion from STEM. Instead, the remnants of epistemic injustice that has occurred through women’s denial in STEM lingers in outdated philosophies.This has been filtered into our personal experience as the constant lack of female presence supporting us throughout our mathematical trials and tribulations. The very idea of mathematics has been associated with masculinity. The cultural focus on gender differences has proven inescapable in the popular imagination, despite negligible differences between boys’ and girls’ innate mathematical abilities. Due to the learning process being fundamentally defined by culturally influenced frameworks, pre-existing biases govern the way knowledge is imparted onto us. Students from groups who experience social and economic disadvantages, especially girls, have their future educational opportunities dictated to them by early presumptions about their abilities.

Eradicating this problem will come from a drastic systematic change in how maths is taught across the UK.


Currently, maths is taught in strict ‘talk and chalk’ and ‘drill and repeat’ environments with the intention to simply pass exams. This style of teaching has been found to cater much more to boys' styles of learning than to girls’. It also makes Rishi Sunak’s recently announced proposal - which enforces maths to be mandatory until the age of 18 - particularly detrimental for young people’s study, especially girls. The decision is not made with the intention to improve mathematical education in an underfunded and horrifically organised system, but instead, it is made with the intention of boosting numeracy for economic prosperity. To us, this just sounds like another way to financialise labour. Our educational system will not be able to cope with this new proposal; strike action is a clear indication that teachers cannot deal with this further heavy burden.

A-Level maths teachers don’t just grow on trees, Rishi. What’s more, this new proposal further perpetuates the divorce between the arts and STEM, limiting the potential of cross-discipline harmony and forcing those who are not mathematically inclined to continue a subject that already carries social stigmas. The implicit message that STEM is valued above arts and humanities is furthered, reinforced by the recent cut to arts funding. Our value in society should not be attributed to our manipulation of the quadratic formula.

We must prioritise educational reform and foster an attitude of unwavering acceptance towards women and marginalised groups in STEM. To those who believe they’re shit at maths, you’re not, you’ve just been taught wrong. To those boys in maths upkeeping outdated and stigmatised narratives, a bit of self-reflection never goes amiss. Most importantly, to the little girls who enjoy maths but are subject to social stigmas, persevere. Hopefully by the time you reach our age, you won’t be the only woman at the table.

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