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One Major Gender Stereotype That Indian Women Have Escaped

19/05/2015 8:03 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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I recently became aware of a stereotype that is apparently quite prevalent in some Western countries -- the widespread belief that women are "bad at math". Luckily, this stereotype does not exist in India.

An Indian woman named Shakuntala Devi was famous for her ability to perform complicated calculations in her head. She was popularly known as a "human calculator" and earned her place in the 1982 edition of The Guinness Book of World Records. Not only was she a genius and a mathematical magician; she was also a role model for students and math enthusiasts, and authored several books on how to make mathematics interesting to children.

There are many examples of Indian women who are very good at math even if they have not received any formal education.

Let me cite a few to help illustrate my point:

Kalamma is a maid by profession. She is illiterate and performs domestic work to earn a living. However, that is not her only means of earning a living. She figured out how to multiply her money long before she learned how to write her own name! She became a financer (serving the same function as a lending bank), lent money, charged interest, and soon began earning an additional income. All her calculations are done mentally. At any point in time she knows exactly who owes her money and how much they owe.

"A quick glance at the leading banks in India -- both nationalised and private -- reveals that many of them are led by women or have women in senior leadership positions."

Another example is that of Sharda, a flower vendor. I met her when she first started her business. She used to buy flowers, string them into garlands, and sell them at a higher rate to make a profit. Today, she has a roaring business selling garlands. She has set up a distribution centre of sorts where other small-time flower sellers buy garlands from her to sell. Would she have been able to build her business if she were bad at math?

These are everyday women. But women role models are not unheard of in India's corporate world as well.

A quick glance at the leading banks in India -- both nationalised and private -- reveals that many of them are led by women or have women in senior leadership positions. Would we trust women with our money if we were not confident in their ability to grow that money? Would these women be successful if they were not able to hold their own in the competitive world of banking?

In traditional Indian families the men are expected to be the bread-earners and the women are expected to be the caregivers. How this often translates in practice is interesting, as most of the time the man of the house earns money and hands it over to his wife to manage. With the money she has, the lady has to provide for the needs of every family member and save some for a rainy day. Women in India have to be good at math as they must make their families' money grow and last over long periods of time.

"Women in India have to be good at math as they must make their families' money grow and last over long periods of time."

Additionally, India's education system plays an important role in determining which subjects children -- boys and girls alike -- are exposed to. Most school curriculums in India do not allow much choice. Math is a compulsory subject until class 10. This ensures that all students receive a strong foundation in mathematics.

In India, for a variety of social and cultural reasons, it does not occur to most people to assume women are bad at math. But this is apparently a stereotype that persists in many countries in the West. In India, we understand that whether an individual woman is good or bad at math has everything to do with the individual and nothing to do with her gender.

I call on my friends in the West to disrupt the clearly absurd stereotype that women and girls are bad at math.

It is better for girls and women when we do not underestimate them--and it is better for economies, communities and entire countries, too.

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