“I always hated math in school! I was just so bad at it...” is a go-to line for countless women I know. It’s not a stereotype, it’s a fact that women everywhere hold this belief. Women and girls who express appreciation for mathematics are, unfortunately, an incredible minority. As it turns out, this minority doesn’t exist because of some innate hardwiring of womens' brains to be bad with numbers (whaddaya mean we're not biologically inferior?!) but because from a very young age, girls are taught not to like math. In fact, the actual achievement levels in mathematics amongs boys and girls have always been relatively similar.
A recent study to be published in Psychological Science surveyed roughly 700 students between 5th and 11th grade. Part one of the study involved students filling out a survey expressing their feelings of anxiety surrounding math exams. Part two utilized mobile devices to track real-time anxiety during an actual math test.
The results? Girls and boys experienced the same levels of anxiety during the math test. It is before, however, that girls express much higher levels of stress. This stress can be directly correlated to the lack of competence and capability many girls feel concerning the subject. The study suggests that these self-perpetuating feelings of inadequacy might be the real cause behind women choosing not to pursue math-related careers.
It’s sad and frustrating to realize that I was a victim of this mentality myself. In elementary school, I remember racing to finish the timed multiplication and division tests, excited to finally be learning “big kid stuff.” But suddenly, from middle school and beyond, there was an unspoken, hard and fast rule that math was for boys and English was for girls. By the time I entered high school, I had given up completely on pursuing any of the advanced math courses, because I had accepted it was simply something I would never be good at. And judging by the meat-fest that is any AP Calculus classroom, it’s clear I wasn’t the only girl who had fallen victim to this trap.
"Remember me??" whispers this math test to you in a dark alley.
Hopefully the results of this study will only help the still-evolving programs aimed at getting young women involved in math and science fields to flourish. As for women like me, who have long-since abandoned any trace of what the Pythagorean Theorem is, I plan on fist-bumping myself the next time I calculate a tip at a restaurant. So go for it and help your niece with her science fair project or double check your little sister’s math homework for her! You’re not bad at math, that ugly boy in your third grade class just made you think you are.
Thanks to Psychological Science.