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:

  1. Read lots of books, struggling but improving, even if slowly.
  2. Read 1 or 2 books, struggling but improving even more slowly.
  3. 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:

  1. Practice lots of math, even doing practice work not addressed within  the required work in the class itself.
  2. Barely skate by the required math, and do just enough to pass.
  3. 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.

  1. Amber
    April 28, 2010 at 6:05 am

    Hi! I definitely agree with you about math being gendered. I know that I’m really smart, and I’m a feminist. I can do math. I can do science. I just don’t enjoy the subjects. Sometimes, I feel a smidgen guilty because maybe I am perpetuating sterotypes about women. But then I remember how much I actually enjoy my majors, psychology and women’s and gender studies. It’s not worth it to feel obligated to take classes I don’t enjoy just to show people that women are equally intelligent in all ways. By the way, I’m enjoying reading this blog and the struggles of gender performance that you experience.

    • April 30, 2010 at 7:54 am

      Oddly, sometimes I feel guilty about identifying as butch and picking a “traditionally masculine” field. But I agree that it’s not up to us just to pursue subjects in order to equalize the playing field. Plus, gender studies = hot.

      Thank you for saying you enjoy the blog. It really is no fun to write without having people comment, and it makes me feel very special and grateful indeed that people have chosen to read it.

  2. tyelperion
    April 28, 2010 at 8:01 am

    I too was a mathematics major at university, and I had exactly the same experiences you did. When I was 13, just before we got to pre-calculus trigonometry, I was terrible at maths – my parents were called in to be told that I shouldn’t be signed up for the advanced course for the next 2 years, I was so bad. My parents, happily, ignored this completely, and as soon as I hit calculus I was in heaven. I was the only girl in my class for 2 years, and I loved it. I moved to an all-girl’s school for my last 2 years of high school and spent 50% of my time doing maths, and loved it even more.

    When I got to university though, I hit my limit with linear algebra – I have a little chill reading your penultimate paragraph about staring at a page with paralysing anxiety and not absorbing anything because it is so similar to how I felt. My confidence was shot to pieces because I was no longer enjoying what I was doing, and it was a terrible self-fulfilling cycle. I don’t know if it was the teaching style, or the subject matter, but I lost my ability to play with maths like I did when I was doing basic to intermediate calculus. I’m still almost hilariously unable to do simple arithmetic, times tables or any mental calculations. The main legacy of my university degree has been a facility with large data sets and formulae that come up time and again in my job and scare the other lawyers that studied english lit and history.

    I don’t think it has anything to do with my gender identity though – I’m straight and married, though not particularly frou-frou or girly. Interestingly though, my husband says that although I dress in a very feminine way, I am very “male” in my behaviour – for example my immediate reaction to someone telling me their problems is to try to think up practical solutions which has got me in trouble with female friends in the past who just wanted a passive listening ear and not Ms(Mr!) Fix-It. I’ve also been told that I behave more like a man at work eg. I always speak up in meetings, try to negotiate a raise at my reviews, and try my hardest to steer clear of office gossip and cliques (which I’ve noticed are almost exclusively female). So perhaps all that math did make me more masculine in my behaviour…

  3. NoJoy
    April 28, 2010 at 9:29 am

    I was a math major, and love math. All of my kids are “good at math”, and I constantly work to show them how much fun it is. One of my 2nd grade daughters has started to lose confidence in her own math abilities.

    • April 30, 2010 at 7:52 am

      That is sad! But I’m glad that she has a parent who is working to show her how much fun math is. I remember my dad teaching me base number systems by telling me about aliens who only had four fingers. Then we would work out ways to communicate with said aliens in base 4. Needless to say, as a child, that was a lot of fun. And little did I know I was learning “college-level” mathematics.

  4. Pocketfemme
    April 28, 2010 at 11:28 am

    I’m finishing up my degree, and soon I will be an elementary school teacher. I remember that when I was in elementary school, I was really excited about math–once my teacher let a boy and me explore “fractions within fractions” we discovered for hours in a corner of the chalkboard.

    When I hit middle school, everything changed. I was really good a reading and writing, and I do think I internalized both the “you’ve either got it or you don’t” and the “girls are good at reading, boys are good at math” messages. I struggled with math all through high school and into my first couple of years in college.

    About to years ago, though, I had a math professor who I really understood. My test scores and my understanding increased in a big way. I’ve had several courses with this professor since then, and when I took a standardized test to get into my degree program I was shocked that my highest score was in math. I’m much more confident now. I still have no interest in pursuing upper levels in math, but my math anxiety was seriously crippling for many years, and I feel so much better after standing up to it.

    In my science methods class, our professor recently handed out an article describing the effect of female elementary teachers’ math anxiety on girl students’ performance. She asked the class for our opinions, and I was pretty much the only one that it resonated with. None of the other girls believed that their math anxiety had anything to do with gender, even though almost all of them readily admitted being “bad” at math or hating the subject.

    Math anxiety, I think, is most certainly linked to gender–I really couldn’t believe anyone would argue otherwise, with actual data staring them in the face. But math skills… not gender-based at all.

    Although, with so many women rejecting math, I certainly think it’s hot when women pursue the study. And if you’re butch? Even better.

    • April 30, 2010 at 7:47 am

      I am really, really glad to hear this! Especially because you will be a teacher and you will be inspiring people to learn and love math. My favorite teachers in elementary school were those who took extra time to explain those concepts to me. It was so much fun to play with numbers and discover patterns. And the confidence that I gained in those settings, doing M&M exercises, benefitted me as I continued my education.

      Perhaps the reason they argued with the data staring them in the face was that they were “just bad” at math.

  5. April 28, 2010 at 12:54 pm

    How true all this is. I was always the top of my class in math in elementary and middle school. Then came 8th grade – I had a teacher who told me once, when I asked for clarification on something, that it was okay I didn’t understand, because I was a girl. And guess what? SURPRISE! My math grades dropped significantly that year, and didn’t pick up again until late in college when I had to take another math class for a course requirement — at a women’s college.

    I think it’s so interesting that you say when you’re good at math you feel more butch; when you’re not so good, it’s because you’re a girl. So fascinating.

  6. JB
    April 28, 2010 at 5:11 pm

    One of the more interesting studies I read back in uni (I was a psych major. Girls can do psych. *grins*) was that before school, girls were actually better at numbers than boys. They could count quicker (if they’d been taught), they could identify larger and smaller groupings faster, they could understand basic math theory better, etc. Within six months of starting kindergarten, though, most of those girls were mysteriously worse at math than the boys.

    There were a bunch of studies done about this, actually, and they all pointed to the same thing — girls are better at math, innately. Then the girls get pounded down and end up with math anxiety. :( Because I know this, when I do something well with math (…I’m terrible at math, but that has more to do with learning problems than anything), I think, “Ha! It’s because I’m a girl.” *grins*


  7. Britt
    April 28, 2010 at 5:21 pm

    I always did well in math in high school… well enough to take honors (or so I thought). In junior year, I took honors precalc/calc A and my math confidence went down the drain. I just didn’t *get* calculus, and not for lack of trying. I practically lived in the teacher’s office, I was there so often for extra help. But I still was just never able to grasp the concept. I ended up barely passing the class, and ever since then I’ve dismissed myself as being bad at math. The next year I was planning on not taking math at all, but my adviser made me. The only options were AP Stats and AP Calc, and I wanted nothing to do with calculus so I took stats. I probably could have done well, but at this point I had it in my head that I had somehow become bad at all math, so I didn’t even try.

    I’ve always been an avid reader, but I can’t imagine ever thinking, “I don’t understand what the hell Shakespeare is talking about, so I must suck at reading. I’m giving up trying to read altogether.” But I don’t think it’s about gender. Take my Japanese kids. One of the subjects they study is kanji, and one of the subjects they study is English. While I really only interact with them in English class, I have peeked in on a kanji class and the attitude is TOTALLY different. You will never see a kid that says “I can’t write kanji” and gives up trying. However, I have several students that say “I don’t understand English” and DO give up trying.

    It’s because they NEED to know how to read and write kanji to function in Japanese society, just like we need to learn to read and write the alphabet to function in American society. We don’t *really* need to do math on a constant basis, and I’m sure many of my students feel, “When the heck am I ever going to use English?” So I think it’s a subject’s usefulness in our daily lives that makes us more inclined to stick with it or give it up.

    • April 30, 2010 at 7:43 am

      I would actually say it’s not necessity, but rather exposure that makes the difference here. Even if they are exposed to English letters, I doubt that it’s with the same expectations as they receive when they are exposed to kanji. Similarly, most people in the US are not exposed to math at an early age as something that they are expected to learn and use every day in the future. Actually, after writing these sentences, I’m saying the exact same thing as you are.

      If I recall correctly, the teacher that you had for Honors Precalc/Calc A was not the best fit for many others as well. He had a particular style of teaching that appealed to only one method of learning. My personal belief.

  8. G
    April 29, 2010 at 1:15 pm

    I was always good at math, but I think I felt that I was just BETTER at writing and reading. I certainly got more encouragement to pursue those than math and science, even though I inherited my father’s brain, and it is one of those gigantic calculators with all the buttons I don’t understand.

    I think society has improved in encouraging students to be more well-rounded, but I think the concept of logical aptitude is still gendered. Hell, I do that to myself. When I complete a project I consider to be very technical or logical – math, mechanics or anything scientific – I can feel the butch energy go up several notches. I have even attributed my success with those types of things to my more-masculine-than-most-women logical side. I wonder what that is …

    • April 30, 2010 at 7:38 am

      Yes, exactly. My butch energy goes up when I do math or play with power tools (however shoddily). Even though I like feeling my butch energy go up, I don’t want it to go up for a stupid reason like “Girls can’t do math!”. It’s part of the same reason that I’ve tried to stop using the objectification of women as a way to feel more butch.

  9. GC
    April 29, 2010 at 5:21 pm

    Well I didn’t major in math but I did major in an engineering major. I wasn’t good at elementary level math (arithmetics), but once I hit 8th grade everything changed. It was like a switch, once the focus was specifically on problem solving or abstract math and not so much on adding and subtracting, math was a breeze.

    I never felt that being a girl was the reason that I wasn’t good at math, I was always very conscious that my lazy study habits were at fault. Of course I wasn’t allowed to blame any bad grades on either gender or genetics, my parents were always on top of that. I can say that I’m lucky that I had wonderful parents that always encouraged me to do my best at any subject and that practice was important for success.

    I consider myself a feminine tomboy or a tomboyish femme if you prefer, and when I’m good at math I just feel smart, I don’t feel more butch. When I fail or can’t solve a math problem, I don’t think it’s because I’m a girl, to me it’s just a sign that I need to change my approach.

    I also have to say that I didn’t grow up here in the US, so that maybe be a reason as to why I don’t feel that math/logic is a gendered issue.

    • April 30, 2010 at 7:34 am

      Yes, I think that the “innate ability” belief about math is uniquely American, and has been documented as such. I’m not sure if I said so in the post; whoops, how ethnocentric of me. Many of the studies that I have read show that in the US, a gap emerges between male and female performance in early to mid elementary school, whereas in other countries, no such gap ever emerges. The fact that many people outside the US have your approach to math and logic (Hooray! I did it/I need to change my approach vs. Hooray! I did it!/I’ll never be good at math.) is heartening to me when I let the “innate ability” belief interfere with my performance. I know I just need to change my approach, not that I’ll just never succeed, no matter how hard I try.

      One of my best friends considers herself a tomboyish femme/feminine tomboy as well. She is a software developer.

  10. Renee
    May 11, 2010 at 2:49 pm

    I was a math major, and always very female-identified. I suspect that going to a women’s college made the choice easier than it might have been, who knows. What followed was a career in IT that never felt like a fit, and I recently completed a degree in nursing. Was I embracing my true girl identity?

    • May 11, 2010 at 4:04 pm

      My girlfriend and I just talked about this last night. She expressed some insecurity about how her interests align with traditionally feminine career paths, and that those career paths are considered less “respectable”. Personally, I think that’s bullshit, a career in nursing would never fit with me, and it’s not because it’s not challenging. It’s altogether too challenging, and in the wrong ways.

      Personally, I wouldn’t choose to think of a career in nursing as an embrace of a female identity; rather I would acknowledge that, in the same ways that a female identity gives me agency and power in the bedroom, so it does outside of it. Clearly, I’m speaking out of self here…

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