Book review: x+y

February 7, 2021 - books / Women in Computing

Since Christmas I’ve read two books by Eugenia Cheng and have hugely enjoyed them both. Cheng is a mathematician, author, concert pianist and writer (and, it would appear, all-round awesome human). The first book was called “How to Bake Pi“, and combined a general introduction to category theory with a bunch of cookery tips and recipes. It was a lot more entertaining than that one-sentence description implies, honest. Upon finishing it I immediately ordered a copy for my brother-in-law, who also likes maths a lot (and cake, but who doesn’t).

x+y is billed as “A mathematician’s manifesto for rethinking gender”. I have read a lot of books about gender, and have a lot of thoughts already in this area. In particular I am not a huge fan of any approach which says “Women are like this and Men are like that” as I just don’t think the genders are that different (if you do, please go away and read two books by Cordelia Fine then come back). x+y doesn’t fall in this trap. There’s some neat analysis early on which breaks down these essentialist arguments by pointing out that often the structure is like this:

Men are observed to be X
X is useful for Y
Men are naturally better at Y

for example: men are observed to speak up more; speaking up more is useful in a business situation; men are naturally better at business.

Observing something doesn’t make it natural, though, and we can question whether something being useful in a situation right now means that that should be the case. Often in these forms of argument there’s a slide (or more than one slide) from something that seems reasonable to something that’s a bit more extreme. We need to watch for this – people who speak up more readily are going to do better in particular types of situation. The gender here is irrelevant, and we certainly can’t jump from “people who speak up more do better in some situations” to “men should be paid more”.

So far so good. Then, Cheng tries to get away from the “Women are like this and Men are like that” trap by inventing some new concepts and indeed some new words. These could form a new dimension in our talk about gender: congressive, and ingressive.

Loosely speaking, ingressive people are individualistic, and adversarial; congressive people are community-minded and collaborative. These apply to characters rather than genders – you can have congressive men and ingressive women. I’m not sure we need new words here (cooperative and competitive seem to me to be pretty good existing words for congressive and ingressive).

Gathering together a subset of stereotypically masculine/feminine traits and calling them something else is an interesting move, though. It makes the extreme ends of the gender divide more obviously exaggerated, and makes it a little easier to think about those of us who don’t perform along traditional gender lines.

The book goes on to imagine a more congressive society, which seems an ambitious and slightly utopian move. Towards the end of the book Cheng gives advice on behaving more congressively, and building congressive structures, and that part of the book feels very far from an account based on gender. I kept thinking about conversations around the idea of aggression in Aikido (and the neutralisation of aggression); or ideas from Quaker movement. So in a sense the book moves a long way from boys vs girls. But I guess it’s good to dream big.

All that said, I enjoyed the book a lot and it made me think.

There were also several passages which really resonated with me. The Lean In narrative is one which I find particularly problematic. It goes a little something like this: “If women would speak up more, be more competitive, be more resilient and generally be more like men then there wouldn’t be a gender imbalance.” By separating out character from gender Cheng gets away from some of the problems of these essentialist advice books, but she also manages to cut through the crap and get a little deeper, too.

“Women are told that they need to be more resilient in the workplace, but this often means that they should just put up with bad behaviour, bigotry, sexist jokes and harassment. If I had been more resilient I would have stayed much longer in a job I didn’t like, thinking I should just put up with feeling undervalued, and bullied in ways that might have been racist, sexist or ageist.”

x+y, Eugenia Cheng, Page 200

› tags: gender / maths / science / stem /

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