No, women are not 'bad' at maths or directions

In France, sexist cliches have survived the #MeToo era.

Photo credit: Photo I EPA

What you need to know:

  • Women “have no sense of direction,” “are bad at math,” “spend too much money” and “are hysterical” and “more delicate” than their male counterparts. So many sexist stereotypes still exist in French society.
  • Where did all of these dated clichés that devalue women come from? We sat down with French historian Muriel Salle, an expert in stereotypes, to find out.

In France, a country that prides itself on being the nation of human rights, “sexism has not diminished, but rather endured,” pointed out the High Council for Gender Equality (HCE) in its annual report published on January 23, 2023.

It shows up in widespread preconceived ideas that are anchored in people’s mentalities, wrongly accepted as self-evident, and that most people don’t even question anymore: For example, we often hear that women have “no sense of direction” and are “less gifted in math” and more “sensitive and delicate” than men. They are also referred to as being “hysterical” and “big spenders.”

How have these stereotypes survived the #MeToo era? To gain a better understanding of this phenomenon, we asked Muriel Salle, a historian specialised in the 19 century and co-author of the book À l’école des stéréotypes : comprendre et déconstruire, published in 2013 by L’Harmattan. She sits down with us to dissect some of these sexist clichés, explain their origin and deconstruct the stereotypes about the differences between women and men.

What’s the real truth behind the cliché that women have “no sense of direction”?

The idea behind this claim is that women have issues with visual-spatial skills. Studies have actually shown that there are differences between men and women in this area. Women don't do as well on certain mental rotation tests, like video games, Rubik’s Cubes and 3D exercises. However, if women practice this skill, they are able to close the gap with men.

In short, there is some basis to the cliché, but it’s really a matter of education. Play in early childhood helps build these skills. Little girls mostly build language and empathy skills through their games, like playing with dolls. Because girls aren't encouraged to play building games, like Legos, as often as boys, they don’t develop the same visual-spatial skills.

The prestigious Fields Medal in mathematics has only been awarded to a woman twice; does this confirm the stereotype that girls are “bad at maths”?

This stereotype is completely false. All academic achievement markers published by the French Ministry of Education for the past 20 years prove that girls are the stronger sex in school, in all fields, including mathematics. Unfortunately, girls think they are bad at math. This is what we call a “stereotype threat” or “self-fulfilling prophecy.” All we have to do is believe something for it to come true, to a certain extent. Girls don’t choose academic or professional paths that require a high level of mathematics, hence the dramatic underrepresentation of young women in engineering fields [Editor's note: In 2018, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN), reported that their teams were made up of only 20 per cent women].

Since high school in France was reformed to eliminate tracks, the percentage of girls pursuing advanced mathematics in high school has plummeted to 10 per cent. Continuing to make girls and young women believe they are bad at math reinforces their exclusion from prestigious fields of study.

Is it true that men are “incapable of doing more than one thing at a time”?

Believing this stereotype works to their advantage. We often hear that women are good “multitaskers.” All the work being done in neurology shows that men’s brains are perfectly capable of doing several things at once. They just aren’t forced to do so in daily life as often as women who have to juggle work and motherhood.

Are women really “more sensitive and delicate” than men?

This stereotype refers to what sociology calls “differential socialisation,” the fact that men and women are raised differently. Women learn to decipher emotions through imitation games, like playing with dolls. More importantly, they are allowed to express their emotions more freely.

Past research demonstrates this through the regularly performed yellow pajamas experiment. Adults observe two nine-month-old babies in yellow pajamas [Editor's note: neither pink nor blue, to be as neutral as possible], a boy and a girl, each on their play mat. The girl is systematically described by her physical appearance. She is described as “cute,” while the boy is described as “lively.” If the baby girl starts crying, she is perceived as being “sad,” so she is cuddled and comforted. If the baby boy cries, he is perceived as being “hungry” or “angry.”

Early on, children learn which emotions they can legitimately express based on their gender. Girls are undoubtedly more emotional, as the result of a lifetime of cultural conditioning. Differential socialisation disadvantages boys too, as it makes depression difficult to diagnose.

Why is associating the term “hysteria” with women sexist?

In the nineteenth century, women were called “hysterical” as a way of saying they were too sensitive. This is consistent with the previous stereotype about the emotionality of women. Ironically, this period was also the golden age of romantic poetry from authors like Victor Hugo and Stéphane Mallarmé. Here, we have these men who are sensitive and expressing their emotions. But their emotional expression is deemed legitimate because of its aesthetic interest. While emotion expressed by women is presented as proof of their structural weakness. Anthropologist Françoise Héritier called this principle “the differential valence of the sexes.” That is, that the masculine is always worth more than the feminine.

The term “hysteria” is associated with women via the Greek root of the word, hystera, which refers to the uterus. This suggests that women, in general, can be reduced to their uterus, with their psychological state being controlled by certain aspects of their physical life. Although the cliché is dated, it still exists today. For example, if a woman is annoyed during a meeting, we wonder whether it's PMS. This reflects the stereotype that women’s bodies, especially the uterus, control everything else.

Do women really have “maternal instinct”?

Many studies show that maternal instinct is the result of cultural and historical construction. But it’s not all related to culture. When childbirth goes well, “attachment hormones” are produced. Carrying and bringing a child into the world has physical and psychological consequences that affect the bond between mother and baby.

The term “maternal” also answers the question on its own, because only women can be mothers. But this doesn't mean they are the only ones capable of playing a parental role. Today there are many rich and diverse forms of paternity.

Do women really “spend more money” than men?

Women are systematically criticised for the behaviors they are prescribed. We can’t hold women to certain aesthetic standards – which translate into wearing attractive clothing and makeup and being concerned about maintaining an appropriate weight, etc. – and then accuse them of spending too much money to meet them. These mandates cost money.

The same logic applies to women’s emotions. We can't teach little girls to be empathetic and attentive, and then reprimand adult women for being too emotional. In the end, women are blamed for what they are trained to do all their lives.

This story is published in partnership with the #TowardsEquality media alliance.