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On Women and Education

Forever 21: Allergic to Algebra (for Girls)

A classmate from my undergrad days, and elementary teacher in the Portland, OR area posted links to articles at the Huffington Post and ABC.com about two separate shirts that send a horrible message to girls. I’ve included one at the right, and another below. The fact that JCPenney and Forever21 could somehow produce these and not expect a backlash is not surprising to me. I’ve seen plenty of offensive t-shirts before. In fact, most of them have been aimed at boys, and imply that boys would rather play video games than do homework, or something of that sort. The point of this post, however is the continued devaluation of intelligence, and importance of looks for young girls. Here is a taste of the ABC piece:

“Our merchandise is intended to appeal to all audiences, not to offend them,” Linda Chang, a senior marketing manager for Forever 21, told ABCNews.com in a statement. “We would like to apologize to our customers as our intent was not to discredit education and we are taking the proper actions necessary.”

The company told ABCNews.com that it is pulling the shirt from its website.

The trendy, Los Angeles-based retailer is popular among teenagers and the shirt is being sold for $12.80. There were no shirts that alluded to education in the men’s section of the website.

And the algebra shirt isn’t the only one on the website that seems to be down on school.

One shirt blatantly declares “Skool sucks” and another shirt has a list on the front that reads: “A+=amazing, B=brilliant, C=cool, D=delightful, F=fabulous.” The website’s tagline for selling the shirt is “F doesn’t always mean fail!”

One shirt seemed promising with the message, ”I heart school” emblazoned on the front, but a photo of the back reveals the rest of the message: “not…”

The “Allergic to Algebra” Forever 21 shirt follows a controversial and similarly themed shirt from JCPenney.

JCPenney: Girls Homework Shirt

And then from the end of the Huffington Post comment:

Since pulling the tee, J.C. Penney gave the following statement to the Village Voice:

J.C. Penney is committed to being America’s destination for great style and great value for the

whole family. We agree that the ‘Too pretty’ t-shirt does not deliver an appropriate message, and we have immediately discontinued its sale. Our merchandise is intended to appeal to a broad customer base, not to offend them. We would like to apologize to our customers and are taking action to ensure that we continue to uphold the integrity of our merchandise that they have come to expect.

I’m glad to see these shirts pulled, and hope that that whatever plans Penney and Forever21 have to stop this in the future, I hope that they apply it quickly and broadly. I would suggest that the issue may be related to the general trend that those who love mathematics don’t typically end up doing graphic design jobs. I’m sure there are exceptions, but certainly those that designed and approved these shirts were not among them.

As for the issue with gender and intelligence, especially mathematical ability, I’ve seen the effect of this in practice. Young men coming to Messiah College as Mathematics majors are much more likely to be willing to consider graduate school. They are also less likely to declare the Mathematics Education major, and easily consider other job options when asked. Young women are much more likely to think that Mathematics Education is their only option, and have been slower to consider other options, at least in my experience. I would say, however, that they are receptive to re-evaluating their possibilities when I show them how their work warrants their consideration of graduate school or other options.

The more interesting experiences I’ve had deal with non-majors. I wonder how many of the majors I see from across campus even considered Mathematics, or related disciplines. Many of the women suggest that they are just not good at math. Others say that they’ve always been good with math, but didn’t enjoy it or didn’t want to be a teacher. This is part of what motivates me to help prospective students see the options available in mathematics that don’t involve teaching. Certainly, not every person is called to teach. Our society has not done a good job of presenting all of the options available to students who are good with mathematics, but don’t want to teach.

Are you someone who has a degree in mathematics or a related discipline, but works in a job that would not be typically described as “Mathematician”? Are you in a job that is described as “Mathematician”? I’d love to hear from you about what your job is, and how you feel your math background helps you better do your job! Perhaps I can start a “What you can do with a math major” theme series in this space! You can reply below, or email me at my gmail account: “Dr.Wilcock”. Please let me know if I could use your response publicly (preferably with attribution to you).  I’m especially interested in responses from my female readers! How has your elementary experience influenced your perception of mathematics, for good or bad? How did junior high/high school influence you? Another interesting thought, how did the gender of your teachers affect you? Never having been a female, obviously, I’m curious how your experienced influenced you, and if that is any different than mine.

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