“I don’t get this!” she regularly moans after school, hunched over her math book. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to DO!” Her emotional radar quivers at code-red by the time she’s been at her desk for two minutes.
Equations spool across her page. They don’t make sense to me, either. My heart begins to patter. My brain refuses to sort the information in front of me. I get that sick, scared feeling I remember all too well: I am sitting in geometry class. The teacher drones away at us, incomprehensible figures and angles all over the board. My hair is bigger, but the feeling of dread is the same: “I don’t get this. I can’t do this. I’m not good at math.”
For me, this is an old story. It begins in the 1970s, with my mother pacing our mustard-yellow kitchen, recipe card clutched in hand. “Shhhhh”, she would hiss when I interrupted her process: “I’m trying to figure out what half of ¾ is. Don’t talk to me right now.” We—my father, my brother, and I—regularly lampooned her inability to do such simple math, and she knit the idea that she was just no good with numbers into the fabric of the story she tells about herself. She is in her eighties now, and whenever there is any talk of math she recites her line: “You know me and math.” Ha, ha. Yes, we know.
By the time I reached high school, a similar block had emerged, seemingly overnight, between algebra (solve for x, got it!) and geometry (sine? cosine?). Along with millions of other kids who were generally praised for achievement rather than effort, I followed the pattern that psychologist Carol Dweck and her team famously laid out: I was unwilling to attempt new and challenging tasks because if I didn’t immediately succeed at them, I felt stupid. With this “fixed mindset,” I was unwilling to risk failure, and ran from anything I wasn’t sure I’d ace, rather than asking for help and pursuing multiple strategies.
That was pretty much it for me and math. I struggled through geometry and trigonometry, unhelpfully renamed “Sequential Math III,” and then stayed as far away as I could from anything involving numbers until…well, until now.
Math aversion, math avoidance, math anxiety: whatever we want to call it. It’s prevalent in the lives of girls, and it outpaces that of boys across developed nations, across the world, regardless of what kind of work the parents do and how well the girls perform in math. From Tunisia to Thailand and on across the globe, kids feel extremely high levels of anxiety when facing down their math homework. Peer-reviewed data shows that women experience math anxiety at much higher rates than men do, even though, as Dr. Erin Pahlke points out in a recent interview, the neuroscientific literature does not support the idea that boys and girls learn differently.
To add an extra layer of gender-specific issues, internalized sexism affects how women feel about everything from their competence in the boardroom to their dress size. They respond to failure and stress with higher levels of sadness and anxiety than their male counterparts. Study after study corroborate this. In management, for example, women are 1.5 times less likely than men to apply for a senior executive job if they’ve been rejected for such a job before.
Translation: women take things personally. And we don’t try again. This can be fatal when it comes to math, as Dr. Manuela (Ella) Rabener, CMO of Scalable Capital and cofounder of its UK arm, points out: “When you think about history or geography, it’s not difficult to get good grades again after two years of poor grades. If you didn’t learn about the Roman Empire you can still understand what happened during World War II. Math is different. [It’s] path-dependent in the sense that it’s hard to be good at it again after you’ve lost track for a year or two.”
Oddly enough, American girls are currently trouncing boys in math—in spite of this ever-present anxiety—but the female half of the workforce holds only a quarter of jobs in STEM fields. The number is higher for women in financial services—they comprise closer to half of those jobs—but drops to 25% in senior-management roles. Women may have figured out how to live with math anxiety and succeed on the tests, but if they’re choosing to do math-based work for the rest of their lives, they aren’t ascending to the boardroom in stellar numbers. And many of them are still anxious about math.
But why are women so anxious about something they’re more than intellectually able to contend with?
Traditionally, math has been taught with an emphasis on speed and procedure, neither of which has much to do with success in or enjoyment of the subject. As Jo Boaler has pointed out in her book, What’s Math Got to Do With It, equating success with speed encourages kids who are quick with computation, and disregards the much more important values of thinking, reasoning, and problem-solving. The American emphasis on timed, multiple-choice testing, only assesses the correct use of procedures. “What is the point of knowing procedures,” she asks, “if students don’t know when they should use them, or how to apply them to complex problems?”
My daughter came home from school earlier this year with multiplication worksheets designed to be completed in under two minutes. She was excited by this task, probably because she was good at it.
“Time me!” she yelled from her room. “Say, ready, set, go!”
She came in way under time, and was happy about it. She neither knows (nor cares, tbh) that timed testing devalues deep learning. According to Boaler’s observations in math class, girls value that depth more than boys when it comes to math. Rabener agrees. “Women tend to want to understand things on a deeper level before making a decision,” she says, “while men often seem more comfortable making decisions quickly. At the same time, business success doesn’t clearly favour one approach over the other…I’ve seen men rushing into decisions and it backfired, and I’ve seen women fail (for example, when trying to raise money) because they were too thorough and therefore too slow in showing progress.”
The girls Boaler interviewed wanted to know why a particular theorem or proof or equation was the right one to use in a given situation; the boys didn’t necessarily care why. If we were teaching to the why, girls would undoubtedly be more engaged and less anxious, Boaler argues; if we used more visual tools, more formative assessment, less timed testing, taught math as a form of a communication—a language—girls might embrace math past middle school, and move on into STEM fields at higher rates.
The problem with this theory is that we are doing these things, or at least trying to. A 2016 Wired piece sums up this effort: as math got more complicated over the century between 1900 and 2000—moving from 84% to just 64% basic arithmetic—there have been numerous efforts to create “inquiry” and deepen students’ understanding of it. If, like me, you’re raising elementary school kids in America, you are doubtless aware of “new math” curriculums like Singapore Math, Eureka Math, or Go Math!, which focus on concrete, pictorial, and abstract strategies; teaching math “as a story”; and conceptual understanding, fluency, and application, respectively.
My daughter’s school uses Go Math!, which seems designed specifically to address the problems with procedural learning. But even when the lessons are comprised of multiple strategies, or visual tools (draw a graph! show your thinking!), my daughter still struggles to think through the problems. Watching her frown and squirm over her homework, I’m reminded of what her teachers told me at her conference (besides that she’s “bossy” and “nosy”—by which I’m certain they meant “a leader” and “naturally curious”—right, teachers?). They said that she was very good at math. That she grasped the concepts easily and was doing really well. But that she lacked confidence. If she’s a capable math student, and she grasps the concepts at school, why is she coming home and freaking out about homework?
My mother, my daughter, and I are not making up that sick, scared, anxious feeling. A recent study points out that what adults neurologically experience when presented with a math problem is the same as what they experience when, say, they’re about to be punched in the face. Fear—along with guilt, shame, embarrassment, and sadness—fall under the category of negative emotionality. Numerous studies show that women experience these types of feelings at much higher rates than men. The brain regions associated with these feelings, including the right amygdala (processing negative emotions) and the hippocampus (problem-solving), are activated in people with math anxiety when they are confronted with problems. It’s hard to feel good about something that is about to beat you up.
Speaking of feelings, Carol Dweck—the originator of the “growth mindset” concept—concluded that since the culture at large seems to think that girls aren’t good at math to begin with, there is some level of self-fulfilling prophecy at work. We don’t expect girls to be good at math, so they don’t expect to be good at math, and then when they encounter challenges in math, they back off right away instead of digging in and figuring it out. A study she co-authored validated and expanded this theory, finding that the idea of math ability as a fixed trait, which women were less possessed of than men, lowered women’s sense of belonging to math, and likewise their intention to pursue a career in it.
What would happen if girls did feel like they belonged to math? Exactly what you would expect. “The only time I felt math anxiety was when I compared myself to my older brother,” Dr. Rosanna Chan, founder of Therefore, a digital economic and financial consultancy, and former World Bank digital economist, reports: “My entire high school class—girls and boys—excelled in everything. Not only math, but music, literature, etc. It was all problem-solving and fun. My environment was exceptionally gender neutral with regard to math—girls were winning math competitions and science competitions as well as the boys. We all helped each other out if we didn’t understand something—but it wasn’t traumatic or anything.”
Chan, who was educated in Australia, wonders whether cultural differences account for some of her lack of anxiety. “I’m Chinese—aren’t I supposed to be good at math?” she wrote over email. “But jokes aside…some of this ‘gendered math anxiety’ is probably a lot more acute in cultures that expect women to be beauty queens.”
It’s 2018. A senator just brought her newborn infant to the floor of the Senate for the first time in history. My daughter would give you an epic eye roll if you suggested she pursue a beauty pageant title. But she’s part of a generation of American girls that feel an enormous amount of pressure to excel academically…be a star athlete…play the lead in the school musical…and be attractive. When asked what our culture expects from them, even our highest- achieving girls, those who will go on to lead movements and found startups and fund global development projects, rail off a list that reads like it’s 1955: Be pretty. Be nice. Don’t make trouble.
Even before she has ever seen the inside of a boardroom filled with men in suits, before anyone has ever commented on what she’s wearing instead of the presentation she just made, before attending any blockchain conferences with 84 male speakers, three female speakers, and an after-party at a strip club…my daughter already knows how American business culture can disempower women. Is it really her job to figure out how to navigate that? Chan says hell no.
“It is dangerous to portray women as disempowered people who just need someone to tell them to ’embrace, attack and choose careers in fintech or STEM,’” Chan rails. “It is in fact the industry that needs to change, to attract women, to ensure family conditions, a more inclusive culture and environment, if the industry wishes to take full advantage of the talents of more than half the population. The ‘women’s problem’ is not a women’s problem, it is a society problem, an industry problem.”
Regardless of how I feel about it, math is back in my life: fractions, decimal points, compatible numbers, and all. Breathe, I tell my daughter. Think about the problem. How you feel about it is one thing. What you do about it is another.
This, in the end, is what I’m really trying to teach her when we sit down to do her math homework. That what she does about how she feels—her response to stimuli, in other words—is the only part of the equation of life she will actually be able to control. A feeling is just…a feeling. It can just be there, hanging out, a friend of a friend who came along to the party. She doesn’t have to respond to it, freak out about it, wring her hands about it.
The trouble with math is not, after all, the equations, or the computations. It’s the feelings it engenders. Teaching her to think and act in spite of how she feels about those feelings, not in response to them, is an emotional exercise for her and for me as well. It’s a chance for me to revisit how I handle anxiety, fear of failure, the sense of not being good enough. Every time I sit down to divide fractions, I have to send myself messages: take it one step at a time. If I don’t get it, it’s okay. I will draw it out. I will think about it in a different way. I will ask myself questions about it. If I don’t get it on the first try, I won’t assume it’s because I suck. If I feel bad about it, I’ll try to notice that I feel bad, but not let it stop me from trying again.
There are many such clinical techniques for overcoming neuroticism, many of which were helpfully outlined here a few months ago. What if, instead of wringing our hands and changing the way we teach math, again and again, only to run up against the same anxiety, decade after decade, we began to address the way girls feel when they do math? Of course, the culture of finance and other businesses needs to better support and embrace women’s lives and strengths. Corporate policy needs to change. Institutional sexism needs to change. But if we put an societal stamp on teaching every student how to manage their negative feelings and thoughts, by naming them, writing them down, considering them objectively, practicing self-compassion—imagine the citizens, not just the mathematicians, we would be raising. Imagine the women they would become. It might be the best thing we can do while we continue to throw rocks at the glass ceiling, lobby for institutional change, and insist on a culture—in fintech and every other field—in which we feel like we belong.