It still irks me… when women belittle their math skills

Warning: I’m on the soapbox kick. Sorry lately I’ve been in a mood of sorts.

Cute soapbox with kittens

Cute soapbox with kittens

It still bothers me that there are people out there who really thought that being a girl makes you less adept at math. I think I ran into (or had the oppportunity to listen to) at least three women, all above the age of 50, last month who expressed their own shortcomings in math. They all seemed resigned to the fact that they were terrible at math and that they could never be good at it.


I have two words for those women who still think that women of past generations weren’t  or couldn’t be stacked in the Mathematics department: Hedy Lamarr. Lamarr was not just a pretty face. She was a gifted inventor and engineer developed the idea for technology which has influenced the development of cell-phone and wireless tech.  “Any girl can be glamorous,” Hedy Lamarr once said. “All she has to do is stand still and look stupid.” She must have had brains and guts to cope with living in her times. I wasn’t able to find much about her formal education in mathematics or engineering, other than hints that she learned a great deal from work with one of her husbands, who developed guidance technology for weapons.

Hedy Lamarr - co-inventor of the Frequency-hopped spread spectrum invention

Hedy Lamarr - co-inventor of the Frequency-hopped spread spectrum invention

And about womens’ so called deficiencies in Math…. sure the circuits in your brain may not be as fresh as daisies*, but anyone can learn how to master functional mathematics. Most adults unless they have a severely debilitating brain disorder can figure out how to balance their checkbook. I’m sure most of those ladies who made these comments about their lack of Math skills understood how to do this and quite well. At least two of them are fairly good knitters so they unwittingly or not have mastered some math as knitters. Even as learned adults, if we’ve traveled through life and work experiences we have developed some basic “Math Sense.”  Many of us have “Math Muscles” that we just haven’t used for a while or on a regular basis. This doesn’t mean that we’re “Math Stupid.”

One person I spoke to defended her comments saying that she was ‘taught this by her teachers’ (whom by the way I hope are roasting over some slow hot fire somewhere for making these statements in front of students).   I have to say it once and a million times.  One’s ability at math has nothing to do with their gender!  And even if you were taught this, don’t share it to younger people. PLEASE DON’T. It still can affect others self-perceptions of their abilities. Or if you do, preface or follow your self-deprecating comment with: “I’m not as strong at math, but this may be because my teachers were insensitive and ignorant, and they screwed up big time when they were teaching me.”

If I go back to that one teacher who told me that I didn’t need to learn math… because I was a girl. Even though I knew what she was saying was wrong, it still had an effect on me to some extent. Later, I remember opting not to take higher math courses or even statistics in College, because I really didn’t think it was that useful. I also knew that math wasn’t my strongest subject and I decided to skip it. I’m not that good at it, so I’ll let it pass. Later in graduate school, I really regretted not taking that statistics class.

I’m quite a fan of the following book: Math Doesn’t Suck, by Danica McKellar.  I wrote a brief book review here. The book was written for Middle School girls, and it’s purpose was to walk girls through some basic pre-algebra concepts and provide examples that demonstrate that girls can master and do quite well in math.  I also liked the stories included in the book that featured young women who discovered entered fields where they used their mathematical know-how in their careers. Plus, Ms. McKellar is a great role model for young women pursuing careers in Mathematics, besides having an active career in Hollywood,  she continues to be an advocate for Mathematics education and achievement for girls and women. It looks like she’s authored another book called Kiss My Math.  I love it when women have an ‘attitude’ about their smarts.

More about Hedy Lamarr:

More about Danical McKellar:

*My own daisies need re-watering every now and then.


2 Responses to “It still irks me… when women belittle their math skills”

  1. 1 karenelliott August 11, 2008 at 4:09 pm

    First, enjoy reading your blog..make me think and yes, sometimes that hurts!

    Similiar issue, just a different fork in the road so to speak, trying to “change” left-handed children to write right-handed and yes there are teachers that still do this!

    The topic of the day is interesting to me, as a life long learner and mom. I use math everyday, as do most people. Jean Chatsky has a great rant on this subject in her book. Can’t think of the title right now, but it is a women and money book and this math issue is at the core of many women mismanaging their money or even worse, remaining ignorant of the finances of the household. Both my children were in advanced math and both equally encouraged in that direction, at home and at school. However, my daugther took a more creative career path and my son a more mathmatically inclined. I am confident that my daughter’s choice was not a result of societal pressures as her field is very male dominated, so maybe, just maybe, the “you can’t do math because you are a girl” POV is changing.

  2. 2 nkilkenny August 11, 2008 at 5:36 pm

    Hi, Karen. Thanks for your kind comments. I do think that it’s changing… gradually. There’s just some unhealthy residual that hangs around from the past. I recently I think my mother was actually a pretty good role model for me because I remember watching her balance her books for her own office when I was a child. Plus, both she and my father were pretty keen on me taking as many classes as I could in both Math and the Sciences.

    There is a wonderful, wonderful resource called “Gender Fair Math:” Which aptly notes that there is no “Math Gene.” I was really inspired after reading this. In fact, I think this is the resource that convinced me that even making self-disparaging comments about our own abilities can be harmful to the young women and girls in our lives.

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