While playing a game of superheroes with her best friend at 7 years old, Eugenia Cheng had one of her first introductions to gender roles.
“I said I was going to be Superman, and she said, 'You can't be Superman, you're a girl, you have to be Supergirl.' I was genuinely confused because I really thought I could be Superman," Cheng said. "That attitude is something I grew up with, and it never occurred to me that there was something I couldn't do just because I was a girl.”
Today, Cheng is a well-known mathematician and teacher who’s been interviewed on NPR, the BBC, and “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” During a recent talk at Illinois State University, Cheng spoke about character and gender in mathematics and beyond.
Growing up in the United Kingdom, Cheng's go-getter mindset was influenced by her parents, who taught her she could do just about anything. Fascinated by numbers at a young age, Cheng was torn between pursuing music and mathematics.
"I had always thought I was going to study math, but then I had this really great piano lesson and thought, maybe I want to do music. I thought about this for 15 minutes or so, but then felt math seemed to be a better foundation for having a decent career and future," Cheng said. "That's not to say that you can't have a decent career in music, but I feel like there's a much bigger dropoff. You're either the greatest pianist in the world, or you're really struggling. Whereas with math, you don't have to be the really greatest, there are all sorts of other things you can do.”
Cheng holds a Ph.D. in pure mathematics from the University of Cambridge, and conducts research in category theory and undergraduate teaching.
Cheng's pursuit of math as a young girl and persistence in mastering the subject are uncommon for most women, especially women of color.
One study found a significant gender gap in the attitudes of adolescents about math, finding girls take less interest in it than boys. Math phobia is a common reason, but Cheng said the fear isn't inherited—it's taught.
"I don't think anyone is born with math phobia. I think it's partly to do with the things that children like doing, and also how it is presented. If it's presented in a way that's all about right and wrong answers, then inevitably, children who don't get so many of the right answers will start feeling bad about themselves because no one likes being told they're wrong," Cheng said.
"Then those children are likely to drift towards subjects where you can't be wrong, like writing, painting, or dancing, whereas children who tend to get the right answer, are much more likely to go, 'Oh, I like this,' and then keep going until a point where they start getting the right answer," she said.
Cheng said for women of color, the lack of interest originates way deeper.
"It's many reasons, and some of it has to do with stereotype threat,” she said. “People, especially women, and women of color, have actually been told that they don't deserve to be there. They're not imagining it in their head. It's people actually telling them. I meet many girls, unfortunately, of color who say that maybe their parents don't think that they're very good at math, or that their dad told them that they'd never be able to do it and that makes me really sad because quite often, they take on that belief.”
Making Math Accessible
For that reason, Cheng has made it her duty to rid women and minorities of math phobia by developing methods that make it more accessible. She made a series of lessons on YouTube and expanded it undergraduate students and audiences beyond universities.
"I had always wanted to write a math textbook with a DVD at the back because the math that I do is very visual and difficult to learn from a book," Cheng said. "At the time very few universities taught category theory and people were in isolated places trying to learn it from a very difficult textbook, so I thought, 'Oh, I could just make videos about it, and I thought maybe 10 people would watch, and that eight of those views would be my parents. But then we put the first video up and I remember when it got 100 views, I had this sense of vertigo, and then it went to 1,000. So I kept making these videos and discovered that people really appreciated it," she said.
After teaching math to liberal arts students, she went on to write her first book, "How To Bake Pi," which served as an introduction to logic and a way to look at the beauty of math.
Cheng is now the scientist in residence at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she teaches math to art students.
"It's quite difficult to talk about your research, math research, to a non-mathematician, so I found all sorts of ways to talk about it by analog and telling stories. It turned into that book." Cheng said. "I never thought that I would get to teach it, but now I do, because I had the amazing opportunity to teach it to art students, and once I had a chance to teach a liberal arts math course to art students, I thought, 'Wow, I've already written the textbook in advance.’”
Today Cheng's outreach has extended from videos to public lectures, workshops, and even mathematical art. While her journey may be a struggle at times, she continues to be brave in her pursuit and keeps her eye on the bigger picture.
"People say discouraging things to keep us out. Men say them about women and white people about people of color because they don't want us to participate. It's very tempting, demoralizing, and I get upset when people say exclusionary things to me. But, then I think, 'Well, I'm not going to let that silence me,' because with me reaching the position I have, it's important to help other people by continuing on.
“If I try and think of it as just an act of resistance, then it sounds like it might take too much bravery on my part, but instead I think about the other people I will be helping by not letting myself be silenced. That really motivates me.”
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