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A Leaked Exam, and the Troubling Truth About Women and Math

Although for most of the world, the Israel story of the week was about flotillas, for Israeli teens, the big story of the week was math.

It’s bagrut season, matriculation time, when high school students endeavor to pass exams that will likely make or break what university programs they get into, and have a direct impact on their long-term future success. The two big subjects are undoubtedly English and math. This year, two days before the math bagrut, it was discovered that part of the exam had been leaked. Of course, gone are the days when exam theft had a mysterious and unconfirmed air about it, like when I was in 10th grade and the Chemistry Regent was reportedly floating around. I thought it was only a rumor, until New York State actually cancelled the exam. No, times have changed: This math bagrut was being passed around on Facebook. Had Israel’s Ministry of Education been even the tiniest bit more social-media savvy, they may have discovered it a few days earlier and not suffer a mad rush of recreating a test within 24 hours.

As the investigation into the source of the leak was underway, the story that began to emerge was only in part about greed (or maybe not greed, but rather economic desperation of radically underpaid teachers). Beneath this was a striking story about gender: about women and math, and about women and professional confidence.

When the police revealed that the source of the leak was much beloved math teacher Rachel Kedem of Kibbutz Yagur, a gentle, soft-spoken woman who seemed to be an odd poster-child for teacher corruption, her colleagues and students alike cried foul. A day later the rest of the story emerged: Kedem, who was recently appointed to the highly secretive and elite math-bagrut writing committee, was anxious about making a mistake on the test, and therefore asked a male colleague, Erez Cohen, to write the test in her place. Cohen, a lecturer and private math tutor from Haifa, claims that he did not realize that the questions he composed would be the actual test questions, and he therefore had no compunction about passing them off to Cyril Rochovitz, whose 22-year old brother was retaking the bagrut. The police believe that he didn’t just give them to his brother for “practice,” as Cyril claims, but also sold it to students. All three are under house arrest.

Kedem’s actions are not just ethically troubling — pretending to do a job that someone else is doing for her — but also upsetting from a gender perspective. After all, it seems incomprehensible that a veteran math teacher at the top of her field, on the matriculation-writing committee for heaven’s sake, can be so doubtful about her own abilities that she hands of the job to a younger (male) colleague. But her actions, I believe, conflate two significant trends in the socialization of girls and women: One is what is called “fear of math”, and the other is self-abnegation, or the fear of being exposed as a fraud.

The first phenomenon, “fear of math”, is about how girls are socialized into thinking that they are less capable in math then boys are — a.k.a. the “Larry Summers” view of women’s brains — and therefore develop profound anxieties about approaching math. Valerie Walkerdine, in her 1998 study, “Counting Girls Out: Girls and Mathematics,” documented some of these and other experiences of girls and math in the classroom. A recent study found that female teachers — who are the majority of elementary school teachers — pass on their own anxieties to girls. Moreover, an article in this week’s New York Times about gifted programs described the astounding phenomenon by which in the earliest school years, gifted programs are dominated by girls, but by high school, they are dominated by boys. And of course science and engineering programs on the college and graduate level are even more male dominated than Bronx Science. In other words, women’s math lag is certainly not innate but develops somewhere around the junior high school and the gender gap continues from there through adulthood.

So Kedem, despite her professional math achievements, still internalized her sense of inferiority in math.

This is connected to another woman’s issue: professional self-abnegation. According to Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever in “Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide,” men value themselves with much more confidence than women, and in fact many professional women are plagued with the anxiety that they are not as good as they are supposed to be, and will eventually be “caught” as “frauds.” Here, Kedem had already been entrusted as a leading professional, and yet continued to be overwhelmed by the thought that she wasn’t good enough. This was so daunting that, ironically, she was willing to actually commit fraud in order to cover up the idea that she felt like a fraud. So sad, yet such a women’s epidemic.

If women are to be more respected in the workplace — in order to receive equal remuneration and create family-friendly lifestyles — we have to learn to first respect ourselves more. Had Kedem only understood this, she might have saved a lot of people, including herself, a lot of nuisance and heartache.

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