I often propose that studying Mathematics is, in many ways, the process of learning a new language. It gives the student a new way of speaking about the world, and a precise way of making their thoughts known. I found myself thinking of this recently when I read a column from the Washington Post describing how the author, Alexandra Petri, believes that society expects women to speak at meetings. Describing some of the most memorable statements from recent history, from “I have a dream” to “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” in a manner that might be expected from a woman at a meeting, it made me smile.
I smiled and chuckled until I remembered the many times I have found myself in an adversarial position in conversations and actually apologized as I raised issues that had serious implications. Most of the time, I was apologizing to people who could certainly take criticism, even if I was reluctant to share it. No, this is not simply a topic to be joked about.
As I thought about the ways in which women are sometimes expected to speak, I also found myself thinking of the precise ways in which my field of Economics has encouraged me to write, taking broad ideas and presenting them in succinct manners, in ways that assure almost everyone who reads them immediately understands what the author is trying to say. Still smiling, I easily came up with several statements that are made much clearer by the use of the languages of math and Economics. I am sure that there are others, and am also sure that there are many more in different disciplines. My favorites from Economics include:
“I really doubt that this organization wants to do anything but make money” becomes “Assume a profit maximizing firm.”
“Is this the best that we can do?” becomes “is the second derivative negative when the first derivative is equal to zero?”
“Don’t you think that everyone is pretty much out for themselves?” becomes “assume n utility maximizing individuals.”
My Italian grandfather’s answer to how he was doing, “cosi cosa” becomes “assume a normally distributed error term that has a mean of zero.”
“This argument relies on topics you learned in graduate school” becomes the phrase that always made me doubt my own skills, “as is obvious to the mature reader.”
Of course, while the column that started this line of thought, one that involved joking about the expectations of how women make their thoughts known, was funny, it also raised important issues for how women participate in the paid labor market. Indeed, labor economists and others have chimed in about how these expectations may affect the distribution of pay in our economy.
Realizing the economic implications of not speaking up, I find it significant that Ursuline College, one of only a handful of colleges left that focuses on educating women, includes the word “voice,” in its tag line of “Values, Voice, Vision.”
And so, realizing that there may be large economic ramifications for speaking in a self-deprecating manner, I am left with several questions. What are the ways in which your field teaches you to speak in a clear, forceful manner? How long did it take to become comfortable speaking up, especially in the kind of meetings discussed in the article? And finally, how can we do a better job of teaching our daughters to speak up for themselves?
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