Math is Hard.
Imagine that you are 5 and you struggle with reading, but of course, you must learn how to read in order to pass your first grade class. Would you:
- Read lots of books, struggling but improving, even if slowly.
- Read 1 or 2 books, struggling but improving even more slowly.
- Give up, because you’re just not good at reading and you never will be, because people are just born to be readers or they’re not.
Now imagine that you’re in high school, and you’re 15, and you’re struggling with math. Would you:
- Practice lots of math, even doing practice work not addressed within the required work in the class itself.
- Barely skate by the required math, and do just enough to pass.
- Give up, because you’re either born with innate math ability, or you’re not, and you’re just not.
I bring up this thought experiment because I find that most people I have met would acknowledge that options one or two in the reading scenario are approriate, but tend to think that math knowledge is innate, and thus find option 3 appropriate in the math scenario. I find this is especially true of women, that math anxiety is not even addressed because it’s just assumed that if you’re not “innately” good at math (like a boy), then you’ll never be good at it, no matter what. I realize that this thought experiment isn’t perfect – lots of people who have learning disabilities will find fault with my implicit assertion that effort is “all you need” in order to become proficient at math or reading. Obviously, there are a lot of factors that affect a person’s skills, but the thought experiment is meant to illustrate a belief that many people hold to be a fact: you can either do math, or you can’t. For more on this, check out this post.
I was a math major. There are typically two responses to this statement: “Wow, you must be smart.” and “Cool, I love math.” Math is polarizing. It’s also incredibly gendered. My math classes were small, and I was usually one of 3 or fewer women. And everyone knows girls just aren’t good at math.
Sometimes, I can’t help but persist in stupid forms of gendered thinking. Like: Harrison likes math, ergo Harrison is more masculine than “normal”, “feminine” woman, and thus, Harrison is butch. But it gets even more complicated than that. I mentioned math anxiety above. Math anxiety is real. It’s really real. I have it, in fact. I can’t even tell you why I majored in math, other than I loved it. Math terrifies me. I can do calculations, simple calculus. Put me in a room with a theorem and I’ll start to shake. But I’ll also be fascinated and compelled by my own curiosity to stand it up, take it apart, and try to prove it. It’ll take me about 7x longer than someone who’s “naturally good” at math. But it’ll happen eventually.
I could always tell I took longer to do math (and by math, here, I mean, proofs and theorems, not equation solving, which I can do quickly and with little effort), and it still makes me uncomfortable. Does that mean I’m bad at math? And if so, is it because I’m a woman? I don’t mean to think like this, but I did and still do, often. It affected the classes I took. I shied away from challenging classes, and yet, at the same time, when forced to take those classes, I usually did well (despite my, ahem, occasionally lax study habits).
Sometimes I didn’t do well. Sometimes staring at a page in a textbook filled me with such paralyzing anxiety that I would just stare at it. Not absorb it. Not practice it. Not try to understand it over and over. When that happened, I bombed tests. Badly. I mean, I have anxiety problems anyway. Math could exacerbate them.
Yeah, sometimes I really don’t know why I majored in the subject. My point is, when I was confident, I was a star, and when I wasn’t, I was pond scum. And I have always explained it with my gender. When I did well, I was butch, gay, sort-of-boyish, and when I didn’t, I was just a girl, and girls aren’t very good at math.
Do other readers have experience with math? I’m curious to see if it relates to your gender identity as well.