Being good at math, also female, and why I must talk about that

We all tend to repeat our favorite stories, and I thought I’d told this one to everyone I know. Naturally, my verbal shorthand led to offense. Again. Oops!

I’m good at math; my conversational skills could use work

I’m not always great at talking to people. That’s one reason for the blog. I like taking the extra time to clarify myself in writing. One major risk factor for my verbal missteps is that I routinely take great mental leaps during the conversation without bringing my audience along.

Lots of things are “obvious” in my mental space, but require explanation when I want to discuss them.

I’ll begin by stating what I thought was crystal clear to everyone I’ve ever spent more than a few minutes with:

I’m good at math.

When I say “good at math,” I mean, “I successfully completed an undergraduate degree at a competitive US college with a major in Mathematical & Physical Sciences concentrating in Computer Science.”books math texts - 1

I have studied advanced math at the university level. I succeeded in those classes, often earning good grades. I have some innate talent in this area, and I applied concerted effort to developing these skills.

All of this “my own horn”-tooting is to make clear what I mean when I say, again:

I’m good at math.”

And now we’ll carry on to the meat of this story.

We were out to dinner with friends. Being a pair of introverts 15+ years into marriage and with a couple of kids at home, we go out like this around four times per year. Usually, we invite friends over and order pizza (because I’m bad at cooking; this post is not about how totally great I am.)

Sitting around the table, waiting for appetizers, I started telling a story about home schooling my oldest son. It’s an uncommon thing, so people often ask questions about our daily activities. Many academically inclined friends are sincerely curious: What is it like, going “back to school,” in a sense, by doing it all over again with one’s child?

I was going to tell a story about helping a friend’s daughter with math.

So I began:

“In high school, because I was a girl, naturally, I was bad at math…”

I should have used the mortifying—but edifying—air quotes gesture. This is when my friend freaked out.

“Not true! It’s nonsense! Girls are perfectly capable of…”

Right! Of course! That was my point, too, but I went into the story all wrong. I can see now that I took liberties with my audience. Hopefully I fixed it with my friend, at her birthday dinner, no less. Sheesh. Way to go, me.

Let’s call this a teachable moment. I needed a reminder of something I’ve come to take for granted.

Even though I’m sure I’ve told this story before; even though it is obvious to anyone who’s ever worked with me; even though it should be clear to any person with whom I’ve held a conversation about education.

Let me reiterate that I:

  1. am good at math
  2. worked as an engineer in the (logic-based, i.e., “math-y”) field of computer technology
  3. lean technocratic and abhor non-objective criteria for advancement of platforms or people

In spite of all this, I really can’t tell a humorous yet informative story about being “bad at math” without the usual lead-up. I must always preface this statement with the fact that I erroneously believed myself to be “bad at math”…

because society;

because gender roles;

because socialization.

I saw through part of the illusion in high school, but it took years before I really got it. I believe most people—men and women—who claim to be bad at math are really the victims of poorly implemented math instruction.

Realizing math instruction was bad, not my math ability

High school was mostly boring. I was there doing time and ticking boxes so I could get into a good college to begin my real education. I wanted to be excited about school like I was about learning, but boy did the system make it tough.

I realized that science classes were more challenging to my logic-oriented brain, and I craved real learning of the sort that revved my engine.  I registered for as many science electives as I could squeeze in, graduating with eight science credits on my transcript. I was proud of that!

And yet…

…even with eight science classes on my transcript, by the end of high school, I was failing Calculus and more convinced than ever that I was “bad at math.” I could no longer conceive of being good at math, though I “knew” this fact in grade school.

I was privileged, and smart, and relatively enlightened. Still, it was that difficult to perceive the reality of what math was, how I could engage with it, or why I should.

Failing Calculus had more to do with not doing my work than a failure to grasp essential concepts, but I didn’t clue in to that until I repeated it in college. You see, I was interested in science and computers, and spoke about these subjects at college interviews, but I doubt I ever mentioned math.

“Math” was a hurdle I would have to clear to get to these fascinating, juicy fields of study. “Math” lived in my consciousness as a threat to be avoided.

Our K-12 system gives a very poor illumination of the field of mathematics

Math is presented in our schools as a skinny, rigid ladder to be climbed. There is one straight path from ignorance to Calculus, and success is measured by computational accuracy.

Almost no effort is made to highlight the diversity of thinking in math, the creativity that goes into the work of real mathematicians, and the awesome power of mathematics to solve real world problems.

books math texts - 2Ostensibly, Common Core is fixing this problem. In practice, I have grave doubts.

I read a fascinating book about a year ago before I kept a handy reading list like I’ve posted on this blog. I think it was Jo Boaler’s What’s math got to do with it?. The most important takeaway I got from that book had to do with a learned, innate fear of math that pervades American society, and female Americans in particular

And guess who’s teaching our children math? In 2011-2012, 76 percent of public school teachers were female. Women sure as hell can do math, but teachers with unaddressed phobias often unwittingly pass them on to their students.

For decades, I’ve repeated something I heard and find powerfully telling:

Americans feel perfectly comfortable admitting that they’re bad at math. Women, especially, feel free to flaunt their innumeracy.

“Tee hee, titter, titter, I’m so bad at math!”

How many people are equally blasé about their illiteracy?

Virtually none.

Teacher training can make a huge difference in breaking this pattern. Vocal and visible advocacy by female mathematicians and engineers make a difference, too. I talk about my enjoyment of math, logic, and puzzles more often than I probably should, but I want people to hear me. I’d like to be one more pebble in the pile of evidence it takes to make a self-evident mountain.

I’m good at math. I’m female. I’m going to keep talking about that.

10 thoughts on “Being good at math, also female, and why I must talk about that

  1. If you haven’t read the book, or seen the movie, Hidden Figures, grab it. I myself am not good at math, but I spent my life fighting the stereotype that, ergo, I must be an idiot. This gave me a lot to think about from the other side–thank you.

    • Loads has been written about his, but I would bet you are very good at the necessary math that keeps your life going. Most common folk have very sophisticated strategies for managing money, for example. They may not be doing complex calculations, but they are applying strategies that WORK. That’s one form of mastery of math! (Carpenters being expert at applications is another example.)

      I’ve been told I need to see Hidden Figures. I’ll move it up my list. Thanks! 🙂

  2. Thanks for the post willo! I know I need to work on my social skills too. So here’s a quick tip. This is a quote from Dale Carnegie: You can make more friends in 6 months by being interested in someone else’s interests than in 6 years getting people interested in your own.

    I found that tip really helpful in carrying conversations because I always try to ask “What do you do for fun?” and then try to learn more about the other person’s interests – reading, video games, jogging, etc. Although I do have to admit some people are just a bit boring and those people you should just ignore.

    • Nice to see you around the blog again, Yibo Wang. 🙂

      I have found that most people become more interesting to me when I can uncover their passion. Almost everyone becomes animated, and then, very, very interesting (to me), when they discuss what they love.

      I think I am simply interested in how people show their own interests!

  3. Well as a white, middle class, (lower middle class?) male I work with several auto mechanics who are unable to manipulate fractions in their work. That’s not math. That’s arithmetic. They actually come tell me the machine wants them to add 3/8ths but they only have two 1/8th shims. When I tell them to use 1 1/4 and 1 1/8 it’s as if I am some kind of witch doctor. Yet they routinely repair extremely complicated vehicles. Perhaps because they’ve been told they’re “not college material”? Many of our limitations are self-imposed. Learned at school and home.

    • I expect these same guys, if you erased the numbers and showed them the parts, could easily grasp the concept of using “parts” to equal a “whole” of a certain size.

      Thanks for reading & commenting! 🙂

  4. First – great blog! Thanks for your hard work (and I know that it can be), I’m enjoying your posts.


    [You] successfully completed an undergraduate degree at a competitive US college with a major in Mathematical & Physical Sciences concentrating in Computer Science.

    Yes, you’re good at math’. I’m doing a PhD, and started on stat’s as a biological sciences undergrad’ – I think I’m good at stat’s & probability… I am not even in your solar system, much less vicinity.

    “In high school, because I was a girl, naturally, I was bad at math…”

    “Not true! It’s nonsense! Girls are perfectly capable of…”

    Was not your doing, it’s called butting in before you get to the end of the sentence, and might even be considered a little rude.

    In my grad’ school, I teach science teachers, and sadly, even amongst them, there is a tendency to be almost embarrassed about their skillset – men and women. I think this could be a good MEd thesis for the Faculty of Education. They call themselves “geeks” and “nerds”, taking derogatory names on themselves, and identifying with characters from “The Big Bang Theory”.

    I’m going to date myself here, when I was a kid, we identified with Mr. Spock, and Uhura; when did it stop being cool to be smart?

    • “when did it stop being cool to be smart?”

      I think the research tells us that happens at puberty. 😉

      But, seriously, I’d blame the end of the “space race.” I think the Manhattan Project and the race to the moon were the only pro-intellectual periods here.

      America has always been anti-intellectual. That’s the ugly backside of populism. Because the elite have always had access to education, the association persists.

      But there is NO EVIDENCE that genius appears in greater frequency amongst the privileged. Poor geniuses just get squashed, or fight their own way out.

      I was just thinking admiringly of Lt. Uhura and her grace and intelligence this morning. It must be kismet.

      Thanks for reading! 🙂

What do you want to say?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s