The Multi Variable Decision


Courtesy of Zenande Mdlulu ’21

This past August I looked through the Multivariable Calculus roster and found that I was the only girl in the class. I guess all the other girls must be in the other section I thought. I soon discovered, however, that there was only one girl in the other section. This imbalance surprised me, and made me curious to find out why this might be the case.


While looking at the data from people who took Calculus last year, I found that out of the 17 students who were not seniors in BC Calc last year (9 boys and 8 girls), every single boy decided to take Multivariable this year while every single girl, except for me and one other girl coming from AB Calc, decided to take other classes such as AP Statistics, AP Computer Science, or Advanced Math Topics. After talking with Ms. LeRoy, I found that although this year’s imbalance was somewhat of an extreme case, there had been a similar trend in past years.


Although one might assume given these numbers that this imbalance is due to some form of implicit or explicit discrimination from the school, this was not the case. The disparity was in fact a result of differences in preferences in decision-making processes between boys and girls. 


Looking at the data, while one might think that boys and girls received different advice from school faculty, such as boys being pressured to do more intense math and girls being encouraged to look at other classes, this turned out to be untrue. Through a survey of those who are in Multivariable this year, and those who took BC Calculus last year and decided to take other courses, I found that the gender disparity was not, in fact, due to an administrative inconsistency between boys and girls. Boys and girls alike expressed little influence in their decision about their math pathway from advisors, teachers, and college counseling. Their interactions with administrative figures were straightforward and did not feel that these interactions swayed their decision-making process in any significant way. In each case, the decision was fairly individual.


I also interviewed multiple students from Multivariable and last year’s BC Calc classes to gain a more personal understanding of each individual thought-process. Each boy that I interviewed had a similar sentiment: Multivariable seemed like the clear next step in their math pathway. Most of them described a sense of straightforwardness to the decision that did not require a lot of thought or internal debate. In addition, in contrast to the girls, they did not express a need or desire for their math course to relate to other aspects of S.T.E.M., making the decision to take the course even more direct as they were not very concerned with how it applied to their other interests.


When I interviewed the girls, each one expressed that when looking ahead at their long-term interests, they felt that Multivariable did not fit into what they were most interested in and what they would need in the future. They also looked to how their math course might apply to their other interests such as how statistics that relate to ecology. They talked about how the classes that they want to take in college and beyond affected their decision, looking at the decision more holistically and with a broader perspective.


Notably, each person whom I interviewed expressed a slightly different thought process and so this average does not represent every single individual (I am, in fact, somewhat of a counter-example). With all the variables that went into each individual’s decision-making process taken altogether, however, there were many commonalities among the girls’ answers and among the boys’ answers. 


It is easy to hear statistics about women in math and think that there is discrimination, but at Groton there is in fact no disparity in the advising of boys and girls when it comes to what math courses to take. The somewhat shocking data was not due to any sort of flaw in Groton’s course selection system, but it appears to be an interesting effect of the differences between boys’ and girls’ decision-making process. Of the many variables that went into the decision to either take or not take Multivariable, I believe that discrimination from the administration was not one of them.