“X + Y: A Mathematician’s Manifesto for Rethinking Gender”
Book review by Bland Lawson of Richland Library
Mathematician Eugenia Cheng has come up with a fresh way of looking at the age-old debate over gender and its role in shaping social outcomes. Her main concern is the way certain character traits have mistakenly come to be identified with gender as if they were fixed and immutable. While this is in itself not a new insight, her way of looking at it through the lens of mathematics is.
Cheng’s specialty is the relatively recent field of category theory. Using this, she considers how people or things relate to other people or things rather than which group they “belong” to – the approach derived from set theory. The set-theory approach, in her view, led to certain traits, such as assertiveness or ambition, linked to masculinity (and the opposing traits linked to femininity), with dire consequences for gender equality in education, the workplace and other social arenas.
The answer, according to Cheng, is not that women should “be more like men” (a view she associates with Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In”), nor the reverse, asking men to be more like women, but rather to decouple gender and character by considering what kind of personal characteristics will lead to better social outcomes in general. To accomplish this, she introduces two neologisms – ingressive (going into things) and congressive (bringing things together).
Cheng believes that ingressive traits (stereotypically “male”) are on the whole harmful, while congressive traits can foster a more just, equitable society. To illustrate this idea, she cites her own experience in the academic math world. She found it to be needlessly competitive and cutthroat, so she left it to become a math professor at a Chicago art school where her students were more open to collaborative (congressive) approaches to study.
Although the many math-derived diagrams are at times something of a distraction, Cheng’s cleared-eyed take on gender is refreshing, and the solutions that she offers are actionable.