Why are girls so freaked out by math? The reasons are complex and rooted in the patriarchy, and education activist Vanessa Vakharia is fighting back
MAYBE YOU REMEMBER the moment you started hating math: the smell of stale gum and musty old textbooks, the monotone drone of the instructor, the knot in the pit of your stomach as you stared at the board and tried to make sense of all the numbers and formulas and rules—so many rules.
Toronto-based math teacher and education activist Vanessa Vakharia definitely recalls every detail of her 11th-grade math classroom. The difficult-to-decipher problems and equations. The frustration. But most of all, she remembers the anxiety. She wasn’t good at it, she told herself. She wasn’t a math person and never would be.
Of course, she wasn’t the only girl to ever feel this way. Studies show that girls and women experience “math anxiety” in far greater numbers than their male counterparts. For Vakharia, that anxiety severely interfered with her schooling. “I was super disengaged and completely struggling,” she says. She told herself that she wasn’t good with numbers. Instead, she was the artsy, creative type. Maybe she’d be a famous rock star and marry her celebrity crush Keanu Reeves one day. But until then, she needed to graduate high school. So when she failed 11th-grade math not once, but twice, her parents placed her in an alternative school with a more individualized approach to teaching. There, she met her match in an instructor who wouldn’t take the young student’s doubt at face value. The teacher, a woman, wasn’t Vakharia’s first female math instructor. But she was the first to challenge her anti-math attitude. “I told her, ‘You’re going to have a lot of trouble with me because I’m not a math person,” Vakharia remembers. “She looked at me and said, ‘That’s not a thing. Now, why don’t you go learn?’”
With help from that teacher, Vakharia didn’t just pass her required math classes, she excelled in them. She also learned a lot about math and confidence. Over time, as she grew to love the subject, she discovered the ways in which gender norms, unconscious or otherwise, can be harmful to girls in the classroom.
Her takeaway? “It’s an act of resistance against the patriarchy to educate girls and women on how to overcome their math phobias,” she says. That’s because over half of all future jobs will depend on mathematical proficiency. And with STEM jobs paying, on average, much higher wages than many other careers, the lack of women studying math at the high school and college level means that women will be underrepresented in these job sectors, as well as being at an economic disadvantage. Taken together, Vakharia asserts, it all acts to maintain a privileged position for men, and uphold the patriarchy.
It’s an act of resistance against the patriarchy to educate girls and women on how to overcome their math phobias.
As a result, Vakharia made it her mission to eliminate gender inequality in math. She got her master’s in Math Education at the University of British Columbia, opened a math-tutoring center for girls in Toronto, and recently launched a podcast, Math Therapy, aimed at helping the math-phobic confront their anxieties on the subject. And in her 2010 master’s thesis, “Peace, Love, and Pi: Imagining a World Where Paris Hilton Loves Mathematics,” she not only investigated the problem, but also proposed a way to solve it.
Her thesis begins with debunking the idea that boys are simply genetically better at math than girls. As it turns out, all genders start their math journeys on an essentially even playing field. A July 2008 Science article, “Gender Similarities Characterize Math Performance,” concluded that “gender differences in performance in mathematics, when it comes to general population, were trivial” in pre-school and elementary school. In truth, girls often outperform boys in mathematics. Gender differences in math ability, however, start to emerge in later years. For example, in August 2018, Scientific American asked the question, “Are Boys Better at Math Than Girls?” Citing a 2010 study from the American Psychological Association, the article concluded that “girls tend to have less positive math attitudes…higher levels of math anxiety, and lower levels of confidence in their math skills,” even when they’ve demonstrated similar performance levels to boys.
But what is it that causes girls to dislike math so much that they don’t continue on to advanced studies at the high school and college levels, even when they’re really good at it? Vakharia places the blame firmly at the feet of the patriarchy, and the internalization of sexist beliefs. She cites the work of scholars such as Valerie Walkerdine, and her landmark 1998 study, “Counting Girls Out.” As Vakharia summarizes it, Walkerdine concluded that “it is the gendering of mathematics education that renders it inaccessible to females trying to succeed in a society where much emphasis is placed on mastery of the ‘appropriate’ gender role, and gender script.” According to Walkerdine, those gender roles exist on a distinct masculine/feminine binary, with no room for anything in between. “In this sense, to be feminine is to not be masculine, and moreover, binaries such as rational/emotional are gendered so that to be feminine is to be emotional at the expense of rationality—a quality associated with mathematical ability,” Vakharia writes in her thesis. In other words: girls can’t be both feminine and rational or logical, and thus can’t be good at math.
In high school, girls are particularly influenced by these gender binaries, and this appears to have a profound impact on how they think about math. With pressure on all sides to follow the rules of normative femininity, teen girls come to feel that being good at math simply isn’t feminine; that it doesn’t fit with their identity; that it’s “not for them.” It’s also the age when many heterosexual girls become obsessed with being attractive to males. And for them, not only is being good at math un-feminine, it’s also downright ugly. Guys only like girls who aren’t as smart as they are, right?
Parents tend to dismiss their daughters’ achievements with comments like, ‘She’s getting 90 percent, but she really has to work for it—it doesn’t come to her naturally.’
It isn’t just internalized misogyny that leads many girls to have such bad attitudes about math. These ideas are also strongly supported in classrooms, which tend to be pretty sexist spaces, Vakharia explains. “[Math classes are] a breeding ground for the perpetuation of the myth that girls are not as capable at math as boys are,” she says. “Students tell me horror stories about teachers who start lessons [by saying], ‘Boys, you’ll likely do better in this trigonometry unit because boys tend to be better with spatial ability.”
“In addition, there’s a lack of encouragement for girls to pursue math from their parents,” Vakharia says. She’s seen proof of this firsthand as an instructor. “I get phone calls from parents saying, ‘My son is getting 65 percent in his math class, but trust me, he’s naturally really smart, he’s always been good at math,’” says Vakharia. “But meanwhile, parents tend to dismiss their daughters’ achievements with comments like, ‘She’s getting 90 percent, but she really has to work for it—it doesn’t come to her naturally.’”
Vakharia’s study also found that girls think it’s just not “cool” to be good at math—it’s for nerds. Certainly, pop culture reinforces this notion to the nth degree—when was the last time you watched a teen show or film in which the cool girl is also into math? It just doesn’t happen. Case in point, take the 2004 classic Mean Girls. In it, Lindsay Lohan wants to join the Mathletes, until popular girl Regina dissuades her from the idea: “You cannot do that! That is social suicide!”
So, what’s the solution? How can girls become more comfortable with math? For Vakharia, the answer is simple and straightforward: If girls are turning away from math because they think it’s un-feminine and un-cool, then why not try to make it feminine and cool? Her thesis explores what might happen if instructors were to “incorporate marketing theory and notions of cool” into the curriculum as a way to bolster enthusiasm from girls who might “self-select out of mathematics despite their high mathematical aptitude.”
Vakharia’s inspiration came from her own teaching experiences. Most of the girls she taught seemed consumed by shopping and celebrity culture—much in the same way that she’d been back in her Keanu Reeves-obsessed high school days. “These girls are obsessed with the notion of being ‘cool’…and they are all at a pivotal stage in terms of identity creation/acquisition,” Vakharia stated in her thesis. “The desire to be popular and accepted by peers is the driving force behind the decisions of many teenagers, especially when it comes to consumption.”
Maybe, she thought, we’re setting girls up for failure by not recognizing the things that attract their attention. What if the solution was not to push back against, but rather lean in to the very culture to which young girls aspire? “Mathematics is simply another act of consumption,” Vakharia reasoned. “One consumes courses just as one consumes ideas, thoughts and products.”
While she was working on her thesis, Paris Hilton was everywhere, famous for embodying the trope of the typical “dumb blonde”.
Vakharia saw something else, though. “Her fame was based on her [supposed] lack of intelligence, but she [knew] exactly what she was doing,” Vakharia says. “I thought it was really interesting because here was someone using this stereotype to make money and get famous, which is so fucked up.” Today’s Kardashian sisters play a similar role. While in actuality, they are successful businesswomen, the images they project are femininity-centric instead of financially savvy. “The media makes it clear that to be ‘successful’ as a woman, one needs to ditch all potential mathematical intelligence or enthusiasm,” Vakharia writes.
What if these same celebrities could broaden cultural ideas about femininity by embracing math? Think about it: Paris Hilton in a “Math is Hot” T-shirt. Kylie Jenner promoting #geekchic to her 150 million-plus Instagram followers. And it isn’t so far-fetched to think that high-profile pop culture figures can have an impact on what are considered gender-appropriate traits. As proof, Vakharia uses the example of famous soccer player David Beckham, widely considered a “poster boy for masculinity” who, once he started wearing pink dress shirts and diamond earrings, managed to “appropriate relatively insignificant qualities traditionally associated with femininity into his identity, while maintaining his identity as masculine.” The way Vakharia sees it, the more celebrities change their own definition of gender norms, the more “these images then pervade society, creating a shift in what becomes acceptable and understood as masculine.”
Simply put, Vakharia says, ‘Stop telling girls who are struggling with math that they just aren’t a “math person.”‘
Pop culture not only has the ability to make mathematical ability seamlessly integrate with societal ideas of “femininity,” it also has the potential to make math “cool.” By way of example, Vakharia’s thesis use scenarios from Gossip Girl as a prototype. Imagine Blair sporting a blingy gold calculator watch, or Serena pictured with a bejeweled calculator. These 2010-era references might be outdated now, but the message remains powerful. “By glancing at the ‘props,’ viewers get the impression that their teenage icons enjoy mathematics while still managing to be the coolest girls at their school,” Vakharia’s thesis states.
Brands could also market math as fashionable. Ad campaigns could show math as something that’s fun now, not just important for some far-away career goal. Nike T-shirts sporting equations about running and distance, Hydro Flask stickers depicting square root formulas.
While we can’t change pop culture overnight, educators can take concrete measures to overthrow this particular rung on the patriarchal ladder. “Schools need to redesign everything to better meet the needs of their current students,” Vakharia says. “Redesigning curriculums to change the game for girls does not mean alienating boys—it’s the opposite.” A feminist approach to education promotes equality, she says, adding that it’s important to redesign math classes in ways that “take into account the need to counteract social stereotypes.” Simply put, Vakharia says, “Stop telling girls who are struggling with math that they just aren’t a ‘math person.’”
Vakharia tries to apply this same principle to her own work. In addition to her Math Therapy podcast, a show aimed at general audiences as a way to break through anxiety by getting to the root of when a listener first experienced “math trauma,” she also runs her own tutoring lab in Toronto called Math Guru. Launched in 2010, the space is modeled after the alternative school where she discovered her love for math. Described as a “boutique math and science tutoring center,” it’s a welcoming hub that feels social and girly. With cozy candles, tea lattes, and comfy furniture, the vibe is part hipster coffee shop, part best friend’s living room, Vakharia says. The intent is to create a welcoming space where students can learn from tutors from all walks of life.
Jordyn Lasko, 18, a former Math Guru student, says the lab helped calm the math anxiety that had longed plagued her by demonstrating why math was important to her overall success and how one’s so-called “failures” could turn into successes. “The Math Guru taught me not to have an ‘end of the world’ mentality when it comes to academic failures, but rather a ‘progress over perfection’ approach,” says Lasko, who now studies economics at McGill University in Montreal. “I remember Vanessa had a ‘wall of failures’ up at [at the lab] and that truly moved me,” she says. “Having learned that approach to academia, it is much easier to take a breath and feel like you can eventually conquer math in your own way.”
Of course, not everyone has access to Vakharia’s brand of math therapy or to instructors dedicated to upending stereotypes. For those she can’t reach directly, Vakharia urges self-empowerment through a conscious rejection of societally imposed gender-based math “norms.” “I think the most important piece of advice I can give anyone is to think about all of the bullshit they’ve heard over the years, and to remember that the myth of the ‘math person’ is fake news,” she says. “Clear your mental slate, realize you’ve been lied to your entire life, and decide what you’re going to do with this newfound wisdom.”
By Rachel Leibrock
Illustration by Jessica Meyrick
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2020 print edition of BUST Magazine as “Something Doesn’t Add Up”. Subscribe today!
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