And Finally

It doesn’t add up

Textbook furore shows maths is still a male domain in China


Gender bias dogs maths in China

Over the years, various studies have shown that there is no difference between boys’ and girls’ capabilities when it comes to maths.

Yes, by the time they hit teenage years, boys tend to do better in maths as an academic subject. But at the level of brain function, researchers have shown there is no gender-based difference – suggesting the male dominance in maths from secondary school onwards might just be socially determined.

That understanding does not seem to have trickled through to the East China Normal University Press. On August 19 it released two new textbooks for maths for primary school children – a red one for girls and a blue one for boys.

The publishing house said the decision to release separate textbooks was based on “Big Data” and that the two different versions were designed to cater to each gender’s strengths and weaknesses.

“The gender differences between boys and girls are still very obvious,” one of the book’s authors said.

Yet only a day later the publisher pulled the books from sale in the face of widespread anger online.

“What next, different high school exams for girls and boys,” asked one irritated Sina Weibo user. “Nothing wrong with making an easy textbook and a harder text book, but why label one for the girls and the other for boys?” another raged.

The publisher came in for particular criticism because it also suggested that girls who were good at maths should buy the boys’ version (i.e. admitting it was more advanced).

Furthermore, the girls’ edition included exercises that involved calculating the shopping bill at a food market, while the boy’s version centred on keeping the children’s attention with games.

“Majority studies have shown that only a very small number of males and females have so-called typical ‘male’ or ‘female’ brains, and that most people have both characteristics. Our current understanding of what characteristics are ‘female’ is largely the result of a series of social constructions,” the Guangming Daily wrote.

Meanwhile, the China Women’s News, a newspaper published by the All-China Women’s Federation to promote gender equality, said that dividing maths into male and female versions promotes gender biases. “The introduction of this textbook echoes an old tune. It will induce anxiety among students, parents and teachers about girls learning mathematics, and reduce girls’ confidence and courage to study the subject,” it wrote.

Chinese families generally consider maths to be an important academic subject – one that feeds into some of the most popular university degrees, such as finance and computer programming.

Chinese students also tend to rank highly in maths in international comparisons with their peers and they often do well in international maths Olympiads – generating a lot of national pride at home.

But following on from the textbook scandal, came another maths-related brouhaha – this time related to US sanctions, which have prevented two universities in Harbin from using MATLAB, a powerful, US-made maths software.

The ban came into effect in May when Washington added Harbin Institute of Technology (HIT) and Harbin Engineering University to its ‘Entity List’ of institutions deemed to pose a risk of procuring items for military end-use in China.

The issue came to wider attention last week when HIT realised it would be at a disadvantage in this year’s China Undergraduate Mathematical Contest in Modelling (CUMCM) because other Chinese universities could still use the MATLAB software that its students were barred from accessing. In a bizarre irony it then emerged that MathWorks, the maker of MATLAB, is one of the sponsors of the CUMCM competition…

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