“Like a girl”

I wrote a New York Times op/ed last week about the relationship between teaching math and coaching Little League.  Several people wrote me to say that I shouldn’t have written the following passage:

My level of skill at baseball — actually, with every kind of ball — is pretty much the opposite of my mastery of math. I’ve reached 40 and I still throw in the way that we used to call, before they started showing college softball on TV, “like a girl.”

So obviously my goal here is to undercut the stereotype and present it as obsolete.  But the people who wrote me argued that to use the force of a sexist phrase to give my sentence a little oomph is a problem, even if (as I once heard J. P. Serre say about a piece of notation) “I mention it only in order to object to it.”

So I asked about this on Facebook, and maybe 60% of people thought it was fine, and 40% said that they winced when they read it.

Which means it’s not fine.  Because why write something that makes 40% of readers wince in annoyance?  Especially when a) it’s in no way intrinsic to the piece, which is otherwise not about gender roles, and b) the piece itself ties math to baseball, a boy-coded activity, and has much more material about my son than it does about my daughter.

I think “like a girl” can be an OK place to go if you need to.  But I didn’t need to.  So I think I shouldn’t have.

One of my friends suggested I should have said instead that I throw “like a mathematician.”  Better!


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9 thoughts on ““Like a girl”

  1. Alex Hanna says:

    I understood the intent of the use of the phrase, but yeah, I also winced.

  2. Nick Addington says:

    “Which means it’s not fine. Because [etc.]” – sounds about right.

    “Throwing like a mathematician” reminds me of a line from Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman: “I was always terrified if a tennis ball would come over the fence and land near me, because I never could get it over the fence – it usually went about a radian off of where it was supposed to go.” I know you find Feynman insufferable, but the radian thing is a good line.

  3. Wendi says:

    Thanks for clearing that up, Jordan. Well said.

  4. Zajj says:

    There’s something kind of cute about
    “My level of skill at baseball — actually, with every kind of ball — is pretty much the opposite of my mastery of math. I’ve reached 40 and I still throw, well, like a mathematician.”

    On the other hand, part of trying to bring underrepresented groups into math (and science) is in dispelling the idea that you need to be “like a mathematician” in a stereotypical sense to be a mathematician. Not just in gender and racial aspects, but in being nerdy and otherwise helpless.

    But one cannot be worried about all things, always. I am thankful, in not being a frequent writer of op/eds, that I don’t have to worry about the larger societal repercussions of using wince-worthy cultural references from time to time.

  5. Larry Hardesty says:

    Here’s a mathematician I ran into at a set-theory talk at Harvard wrestling at the 2011 world championship. He doesn’t fare that well, but keep in mind that he was 33 at the time — seven years past his Olympic appearance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gx2dO-3dfqw

  6. gbark321 says:

    Part of me wants to say that the point of writing is to get your ideas across. Pretty much everyone who is reading your piece lived in a time when if was common to use the phrase “throws like a girl” to mean throws really badly. Thus, using that phrase gets your point across very efficiently.

    However the line “like a girl” enters into contested territory, cue the recent viral viedo “#Like a Girl” : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XjJQBjWYDTs for instance.
    I really appreciate your post owning up to the fact that it might have been a mistake. I think that’s important, and really cool that you did that.

    I’m a girl, I’m a mathematician, AND I can throw. I think because I struggle more to fit into the mathematical community than the sports one, I actually would take more offense to the “throws like a mathematician” phrase. But then again, I don’t really take offense at either.

  7. Tom Church says:

    I definitely winced.

  8. NDE says:

    And a few weeks later this cartoon appears on USA Today’s Op-Ed page:

    (There was a similar cartoon after the US women’s soccer team won gold in the 2004 Olympics.)

  9. Jan Slagter says:

    It’s so amusing to me to see how Americans use their bodily reactions as arguments in a discussion. If a significant amount of people wince while reading statement X, then should that prove that statement X was “a problem”? Whatever happened to the good old usage of arguments…

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