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Yesterday I read something that made my blood boil. In 1939, de Valera’s minister for education announced a proposal to cut mathematics as a compulsory subject at the intermediate level (equivalent to the junior certificate). He said that girls shouldn’t feel compelled to take mathematics as a subject at that level because they did not share the same aptitude as boys did for mathematics.
I realise that 1939 was not an era of flourishing gender equality and I know I shouldn’t have expected anything more from the government who wrote into our constitution that women belong in the home. What annoyed me most is that we still perpetuate this myth that women are not as suited to mathematical subjects as men. My honours maths class in a year of 120 students in an all-girls school had only nine of us in it. The physics class had about the same number. The equivalent all-male school in my town had much larger class sizes in these subjects and my male peers also had the option to learn technical drawing and applied maths. The government didn’t see fit to fund these subjects for the girls, but they did find money for three home economics teachers in the budget. We watched as the male school won prizes in the young scientists exhibition while our extra-curricular activities were highly gender stereotyped. The subtle messages we send our young women that tell them they shouldn’t attempt scientific endeavours must end. De Valera’s minister for education, by the way, came from my home town.
The better news is that we are trying to shake off the perception that girls can’t do mathematics. There are an increasing number of coding clubs and science and engineering youth programmes popping up aimed solely at young girls. However, many are based in cities so the girls like me from country schools don’t have access. One way to tackle this problem is to integrate the image of female scientists and mathematicians into the core school curriculum. We should make a point of telling young women that the physicist Lise Meitner made one of the key discoveries that led to atomic energy, that Ada Lovelace wrote the first computer programme and that Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize twice, in Physics and in Chemistry, and her daughter also won a Nobel Prize. The new Irish mathematics curriculum ‘Project Math’ for all its controversy was a step in the right direction. We need to show both boys and girls that mathematics and science is a factor in everything we do and not just an abstract concept. Society relies on the internet and that requires math. The more we emphasise this to young women the more interested they might be in reasserting the balance. The internet will never be gender neutral until the people who code it are representative of all those who use it – an internet for the people, by the people.
Interestingly, the movement for coding has found an unusual spokesperson in the guise of a supermodel. Karlie Kloss is the ultimate lesson in why you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Kloss has 4.6 million followers on Instagram and she doesn’t just tweet fashion photos. She enrolled herself in a coding school and started her own Kode with Klossy scholarship programme for women and girls to learn more about the language of the future. There are those who would probably dismiss her, but Kloss is not just a pretty face, she’s an intelligent business woman who shares her interests with her captive audience, many of whom are young girls. She emphasises that in the United States women control 85% of online spending but only 18% of computer science graduates are women. Kloss also helps to defy the stereotype that says you can either be into science or be a girly-girl. She looks dazzling, she codes, wears phenomenal clothes for work and she embraces her nerdiness openly. Did I mention she also has her own cookie company? Girls who code can have their pi pie and eat it too.