Why Am I Afraid of Math?

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About Emily Heist Moss

Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works at a tech start-up. She's a serious reader and a semi-pro TV buff. She writes about gender, media, and politics at her blog, Rosie Says. (Follow her: @rosiesaysblog, find Rosie Says on Facebook). 

Comments

  1. Kirsten (in MT) says:
  2. It sounds like you are doing what you want to do. So, evidently you can still be anything you want to be. You admittedly didn’t want to take those math classes, and chose not to. Now you are faced with a career opportunity involving math, which you seem enthused about. So, again, it’s what you want to do. If you choose to do a night class in calculus so as to excel at your job, it will be because it’s what you “want” to do. I had the same experience (more about that in the last paragraph)

    I encourage my girls to work just as hard in math and science as their other subjects. The older one is already interested in a career in health, so I connect that desire with a need to do well in math and science – so she sees that there is a reason to work at them, even they’re not her favorite.

    Are boys naturally more inclined to like math and science? It seems so, based on my personal observation in school and now watching patterns in my daughters’ classes. But, I suspect that there is another element, at least as they get older: career path choice.

    For example, although I’m an engineer, math and science were never my favorite subjects but I still took calculus, physics and all the rest, and did well enough to graduate with a GPA high enough to get a job. Why? Because I wanted to be an engineer, the kind that didn’t do math and science all day. But, the price of admission was to do math and science in school. So, I was willing to pay the price. Had I chosen a liberal arts path I wouldn’t have bothered to bend my brain so.

  3. It’s wonderful that you were able to discover your “math brain” and clearly you have aptitude for math and wonderful parents who tried to make math fun. There are people who suffer from a real Math Anxiety that can be determined at a young age (http://www.pragmaticmom.com/?p=17901).

    But I agree with you about the ridiculousness of the JC Penny T Shirts; telling young girls that math is for boys is precluding them from a world of high paying jobs, to say the least.

    I blog extensively about math for kids and parents. I truly think it’s important to do what your parents did for you … encourage their kids to find the fascinating in math and to teach their kids that they can be “good” at math. All my posts on math are here: http://www.pragmaticmom.com/?cat=1378

    My most popular post is using picture books that have math concepts built in. http://www.pragmaticmom.com/?cat=1378

    Thank you for your post. It’s encouraging to parents that kids can overcome an avoidance of math and that encouragement is all we can do but that it works! :)

  4. Either nature, nurture, or a combination of these is a possibility for the larger question of why girls don’t tend to favor math. That goes without saying. But I think that in an effort to dismantle the nature argument, people go to far in the other direction by saying that the explanation for gender differences in mathematical ability is fully rooted in sociability. This is a very unscientific “God in the Gaps”-like argument which leaves us little room to prove or disprove the hypothesis.

    That being said, the article wasn’t bad; I’m just wondering why it is posted on The Good Men Project.

    • Good fathers care about issues that may affect their daughters’ education.

      • fair enough, though i can’t recall seeing any writers here take up boys’ poor school performance and the college education gap where women make up 57% of the college degree-seekers. correct me if i’m wrong though.

        to me, this article seemed less like an appeal to parents to understand how raising daughters affects their preference for math and more like a sounding post for a young woman speaking up about her struggles with the subject. and while this is not necessarily a “masculist” blog, there are plenty of feminist blogs that handle that subject matter.

        • You’re right, there there is no concern about the gender education gap expressed here because GMP is largely a feminist lead site. I haven’t ever seen a feminist blog or website that raises any serious concern over the gender education gap.

          • Perhaps there is little concern because it has had no affect on male outcomes. When women have to get a PHD to get equal pay to a man with a bachelors, what education gap is there to discuss?

            • You’re comparing apples to tomatoes. Men work longer hours on average, are more career-oriented on average, and enter jobs that are more stressful, on average. Even within fields – such as MD’s – men opt for more difficult positions like cardiologist while women opt for pediatrics. Again, in general, but these generalities explain the general differences in pay.

            • No, I’m not. When accounting for all of those things, women are still paid less. Also, non-whites are paid less than white and lighter skinned counterparts. Do they also enter jobs that are less stressful?

            • http://www.consad.com/content/reports/Gender%20Wage%20Gap%20Final%20Report.pdf

              DK: this is the largest most comprehensive survey ever done.
              If I remember correctly this reports states that when women’s choices are controlled for the disparity between the sexes dwindle to:
              4.8 to 7.1 less in earnings.
              Excerpt:
              “thereby leave an adjusted gender wage gap that is between 4.8 and 7.1 percent. These variables
              include:
              A greater percentage of women than men tend to work part-time. Part-time work tends to
              pay less than full-time work.
              A greater percentage of women than men tend to leave the labor force for child birth, child
              care and elder care. Some of the wage gap is explained by the percentage of women who
              were not in the labor force during previous years, the age of women, and the number of
              children in the home.”
              Next excerpt:

              “Research also suggests that differences not incorporated into the model due to data limitations
              may account for part of the remaining gap. Specifically, CONSAD’s model and much of the
              literature, including the Bureau of Labor Statistics Highlights of Women’s Earnings, focus on
              wages rather than total compensation.”

              Men are 95% of on the job deaths. If you there were a study done showing bad health due to stress, accidents leading to permanent lower standard of living, exposure to toxic substances (i.e. blacklung and asbestos and pesticides), injuries and death rather than just looking at $$$$$$$ you would see men are victimized just as much (or more) for their role as provider.

              Many working class men get paid only 50% more over what women do to have many dozens more times likelihood of injury or death. In this view, we can see men are selling their bodies cheaply.

              Feminists are always going to say that the only metric that shows victimhood is in gender wage disparities is $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$

              But saying that over and over doesn’t make it true.

              Young men have twice the rate of unemployment of young women. How you can say this hasn’t affected men is beyond me.

              Besides, I could easily flip the coin over and say:
              Since the pro-girl women programs initiated in the 90′s (thanks to AAUW’s BS report Shortchange girls Shortchange America) hasn’t shifted women’s outcomes, then we can do away with women only programs in education.

            • That’s the first time I’ve heard that lack of education has no affect on one’s outcome. So why bother to send boys to school at all? Think of all the money that would be saved.

              The reality is that they don’t care about boy’s outcomes, including minority boys, whose high school drop out rates are the worst and the where the education gender gap gap is the widest.

            • I’m glad you bring up the race/class gap because the darker one’s skin is, the more education one needs to match the wages of a whites. Much like women require more education to match the wages of men. That is the gap of concern.

            • Really? Dark-skinned Indians earn less than whites when controlling for education?

            • But to your question, directly:

              http://www.jbhe.com/news_views/55_closing_the_income_gap.html

              As of 2004 at least, according to the Journal of Black Higher Education reporting on Census figures, the median black with a Master’s degree earned 98% of what non-Hispanic whites with Master’s degrees earned.

              Blacks with doctorate degrees actually earned more than whites with doctorates.

              On bachelor’s degrees – black women with bachelor’s degrees earned more than white women with bachelor’s degrees. The largest disparity is that between white men and black men with bachelor’s – with the former earning about $50,000 and the latter earning $40,000.

              That could be explained in part by a couple of factors: 1. The institutions those degrees were granted from may not be on the same plane 2. Black men may not compete for same degree fields as white men. To my knowledge, black men are underrepresented in higher paying STEM fields, which could help explain the $10,000 gap.

              Either way, the picture is mixed, and it is not safe to say that whites are paid far more than blacks, all else being equal.

            • Life is about more than money. Everyone should get a decent education for many reasons, job prospects being an important reason but only one of a number of important reasons.

              The feminist claim to be for equality is proved untrue by their indifference to the fact that boys graduate 10% behind girls in high school and 14% in college. I am not saying that it’s their responsibility to care or do anything about it; I’m just pointing out that they don’t care, and that equality is not their objective.

            • Perhaps there is little concern because it has had no affect on male outcomes. When women have to get a PHD to get equal pay to a man with a bachelors, what education gap is there to discuss?
              The education gap that shows girls are outperforming boys in most measured metrics (class, race, etc…). Sure it would be nice to address that pay gap but surely the education gap is worth addressing too right? Or is the only concern to make sure women get fair pay (yes its a valid concern but by no means is it the only worthwhile concern)?

    • You have your argument backwards. Scientific studies that show that the gender disparity in math is social and regional, not natural. Falling back on nature to fill in the gaps is unscientific.

      • Please post a link to the studies you are referring to.

          • Thank you but can you post a link to one that deals with math? That one deals with spatial ability. Spatial ability and math ability are not synonymous.

            • Thank you. I don’t believe that boys are natually better at math any more than I believe that girls mature faster than boys or read and write better naturally. However, being good at something and enjoying it are not the same. I think the difference may lie in what they enjoy and thus choose to focus on.

            • Excerpt from the study:
              “While the gender gap in math performance seems to be narrowing, Hyde and Mertz caution that the United States may fall further behind other nations in math performance as tests mandated by No Child Left Behind include almost no questions requiring complex problem-solving.”

              And yet test results from NCLB were used as part of the data to prove girls were doing as well as boys. If you set the bar low, of course disparities will disappear as all seem to do well.

              Also, the article states that there continue to be disparities at the high end, but they expect them to disappear.
              I wouldn’t be so sure. It seems that the Y chromosome seems to be natures petri dish for variation.

              Male variation seems to be greater than females. This applies in almost everything: height, weight, emotional temperament, spatial ability, IQ and math.

              Women have a bell curve with the greatest portion of women gravitating to the center. Men have a slightly flatter bell curve with much greater representation at the far outliers.

              When you hit 130 IQ you’re talking almost 2 men to 1 women. 160 is four to one. The same applies to math and spatial ability.

              Ask any teacher who teaches developmentally disabled kids. There are far more boys with learning disabilities than girls.

              For whatever reason, there are always much more boy idiots and boy geniuses over girls.
              People may not like it, but it doesn’t mean we should pretend it doesn’t exist.
              It also means that all this money universities are spending to shore up women’s states in physics and math is probably a huge waste of time.

          • i feel i should point out that that study found that in patrilineal tribes men were 36% faster and in matrilineal tribes men and women scored equally. if as you postulate the difference in spatial abilities is cultural wouldn’t you expect the women to be faster in the matrilineal tribes. I find your link interesting but inconclusive.

      • Not only that but throwing out test scores (CRCT, ITBS, ect.) and constantly parroting that girls are doing more poorly in math and science than boys isn’t helpful either. There was one study done where both boys and girls took a standardized test. There were two subject groups. One group (the girls) was told that girls scored more poorly in math and science. The other group wasn’t told anything. With the latter group, there was little disparity between the math and science scores of boys and girls. With the former group, there was. The boys inevitably did better.

  5. I’ve written a few blogs (at http://www.princessfreezone.com) that address much of what is said in this piece. I think a lot of these issues are rooted in how girls are treated from a young age (JC Penney’s tee is one example). One of my blogs is called “Encouraging Girls to Tinker” which discusses the differences between the way we talk and engage with boys when they’re young and how we treat girls. Is every girl going to end up a scientist or mathematician as a result? No. But they might be able to fix a leaky faucet!

  6. I think this tee-shirt is meant to be a bit of a joke – I mean, what are boys who aren’t good at math supposed to wear? “I’m too hunky to be good at math!” It isn’t funny when the message is taken seriously or slips into the subconscious obviously.

    Not many people are good at math – male or female – even our professional financiers often can’t add and subtract it seems hence the economic mess we’re in.

    Far more disturbing is the message that pretty girls simply can’t think. That’s look-ism.

  7. Kirsten (in MT) says:

    Okay, some thoughts after sleeping on this.

    1. I have no idea what your new job is, and yet I’d bet you $20 sight unseen that nobody gives a flying anything whether or not you know calculus. Calculus was probably not in the job description. Actually doing calculus regular isn’t even in the job description for a lot of- maybe even most- engineers. Sitting around doing a lot of calculus by hand is expensive so a lot of calculus-intensive analysis is done by computers while the engineers are mainly there to find accurate input data, set parameters intelligently, choose the right kind of analysis, make good assumptions in place of missing data, etc. I got a degree in mechanical engineering, and then spent 11 years and change working as a reliability engineer. The last time I actually used calculus was in my differential equations class.

    2. HELLO! Advanced statistics is real math. I found statistics much harder than differential equations. I have two textbooks on my shelf for a class called Mechanical Measurements- one from each time I took it. Despite what you might think from the title, this was largely a probability and statistics class. I’ll just say that I didn’t take it twice because I breezed through effortlessly the first time. ;-) In college I took four semesters of calculus, linear algebra, discrete math, and this mechanical measurements class. That was the ONLY math I took more than once.

    My job was fairly intensive in probability and statistics, and my experience was that most of the other engineers I knew were much more comfortable with calculus. The only thing they liked about probability and statistics was that so many people found the concepts confusing that they could often get away with playing fast and loose with the data to spin things the way they wanted them to look and few would notice. MAJOR MATH FOUL!!!

    3. You rocked a class in number theory. Again, not heavy-duty math HOW??? Emily, you’re absolutely killing me. Almost 400 years ago, Fermat jotted down a theorem in the margin of a book. 358 years later-THREE HUNDRED FIFTY FUCKING EIGHT YEARS LATER- this was FINALLY solved in a way that nobody thinks Fermat would have solved it. Never mind the men and women over centuries who proved the theorem in this case or that. It took over seven years and 100 pages to develop the general proof covering all cases, and it involves math that didn’t even exist in Fermat’s day. NEW MATH WAS DEVELOPED FOR THIS!!! We still don’t know how Fermat did it. In fact, we’re not really even sure HE solved it for the general case. Not heavy-duty math like calculus? Emily, you wound me to my very core. My soul weeps to hear you speak in this manner. Just stab me in the heart, why don’t you? I can’t even believe I’m hearing this.

    4. You’re obviously plenty intelligent, and yes, including in a mathy way. But if not knowing calculus is really a major hang up for you, get over it by learning calculus. Google Khan Academy. It’s completely free. If you want to register and learn calculus, I’m happy to coach if you don’t have someone you already know who you’d like to coach you. It would be a good refresher for me, too. You can start back a little earlier than calculus if need be. I’m not totally clear how you cut into the exercises at a certain level, but I’m sure that can be figured out. No grades, no due dates, you can pause or quit at any time, no pressure.

    5. There was a guy who I used to work with named Rex. We all found him very annoying and kind of simplistic in his thinking when we first dealt with him. He would ask the most simplistic questions to which the answers were obvious to us all. But he was an Engineering Fellow at our company, which meant basically he could do whatever he wanted, and whatever he told you to do, you had to do unless someone like your chief engineer overruled him which they almost never did. That superdupersucked because more than half the time you’d run off to chase down the evidence for this very obvious answer to this ridiculously simplistic question and wind up spending immense amounts of time finding out that the obvious was wrong. The lesson I took away from working with Rex was that the smartest guy we worked with was the guy who didn’t care if you thought he was dumb or was asking a dumb question and who pulled on every little thread until HE understood it thoroughly.

    There are a lot of different types of technical folks. Many of them are thrilled when you ask them a question because someone is actually interested in what they are doing! Show a little interest and you can cultivate a lot of friendships. Some of them will react negatively when you ask questions. Suck it up. If you pursue those questions like Rex does, you will find that some of them react negatively because it turns out that they don’t know as much as they lead others to believe. When called on to explain something that they don’t really understand themselves, they will try to avoid exposing themselves by trying to intimidate you. The way to figure out who these people are is to pursue them to a real and satisfying answer or until it becomes evident that they don’t have one.

    6. You say you’re done with school. Good. I think school is mostly unhealthy and unsuitable for the human condition. Good riddance to it! What I hope you’re not done with is learning. I’m not. I felt about electricity and magnetism in college similarly to how you do about math. I majored in mechanical engineering for a reason. When I turn on a faucet, I see water coming out and I can understand that. When I plug a cord into wall outlet, I don’t see electrons or holes coming out. Much, much harder to wrap my head around. :-) I had to take two electrical engineering courses for my major, and those were excruciating. I was so glad to be done. Years later, working on circuit boards, it bothered me that I didn’t understand the basic concepts of what I was dealing with. For the most part, I didn’t need to because most of the circuit board failures we dealt with were mechanical failures. But it bothered me. So I arranged with my boss to come in late on Tuesdays and Thursdays and went to the university twice a week to sit in on the most basic electrical engineering class that the electrical engineers took. Turns out it was taught much better than the token classes for non-electrical engineers. Since then I’ve gotten my own soldering iron and electronic components starter kit and guidebook from MAKE Magazine and have been playing around with stuff bit by little bit. And it’s been FUN! Without being forced through the ridiculous school structure, I can play around without worrying about whether or not I failed. If I fail, it’s not on my permanent record. I just get more parts and try again.

    I encourage you to keep learning, and to try things at which you believe you will fail. You will fail at some of them. :-) That’s fine. You might abandon some of those things completely. You might try some of them again and not fail later. Some of them you will surprise yourself by not failing at. Those are kind of awesomely mind-blowing experiences for me, and huge confidence builders as well. I hope you don’t deny yourself that sheer joy by avoiding things out of fear of failure. We’re adults now. :-) We can engage in learning experiences we choose for ourselves and have VIRTUALLY NO CONSEQUENCES FOR FAILING! IT IS AN AMAZING WAY TO LEARN!

  8. Elizabeth Calhoun says:

    Check this out if you actually believe girls are worse at math than boys: http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2011/09/02/does-biology-explain-why-there-are-so-few-women-in-computer-science/

    Blows the sterotype out of the water.

  9. Jim Parkevich says:

    Whoa! Hold on there Emily…My son is a Registered Nurse and his old man (me) is thrilled for him. And he is Not exactly soft or empathetic in his duties. He works on a ward filled with drug abusers, violent criminals and street derelicts who really don’t deserve the care they get. Additionally, he is a highly qualified scuba (technical) diver doing deep dives requiring decompression and an extensive knowledge of mixing gases for different types of dives. His latent math ability is now fully engaged. As a nurse he is able to gauge oxygen needs of his patients utilizing mixing charts he accesses on his I- phone . He can plan out this care even before the techs from Inhalation Therapy show up. His diving skills and gas mix abilities are highly trusted by his diving compatriots.
    Working at a State University Hospital, My son is eligible for free tuition. His plan is to earn a BS.N ( he is a junior college grad) including all the advanced math required to become a Nurse Anesthesiologist. Professional nurses in this area can earn a salary exceeding 250K a year He works hard and is committed to his career. .

    • Wow, Jim, thanks for your response! Your son is lucky to have your support and I wish all parents were so proud of their kids’ professional choices!

  10. I love this post. Clearly, it raises questions about natural ability vs. learned ability (or disability), as well as male vs. female brains. There are so many variables that it is pretty tricky to figure out what is going on, but these types of questions help raise the questions, that ultimately lead to discoveries.

  11. There are studies that show that children who receive too much of a certain type of praise (i.e. “You are so good at writing! You are so smart!” rather than “You worked really hard on that!”) grow up to be risk-averse people who are unwilling to try anything they think they might not succeed at. So it might not have anything to do with math at all, but how your brain was wired by the well-meaning adults in your life during your formative years (not that I want to give the MRAs on this thread any more ammunition…)

  12. wellokaythen says:

    I hate to be the trollish literalist once again, but you can’t actually be anything you want to be. No one can. I daresay you shouldn’t be allowed to be or encouraged to be literally absolutely anything you want to be. (Ted Bundy was quite self-confident and self-assured. No problems with self-esteem there.)

    No one should be discouraged from pursuing knowledge because of any stupid arbitrary reasons. I agree that people are often needlessly discouraged too early from some subjects that they might actually have an aptitude for. Sometimes it’s just the approach, or it’s timing. Some subjects you just may not be ready for at that stage of your life.

    As a teacher, I sometimes get a little tired at the whole instrumental view of knowledge that people have towards education, e.g. “why will I need to know this later?” If you’re dependent on those in authority to tell you what you need to know in the future, you’re already failing to learn. You’ve already abdicated your power over the future. Besides, this isn’t how knowledge works, by just reproducing what your teachers tell you. That’s great if you’re aiming to be a entry-level corporate drone. But, there are all sorts of useful kinds of knowledge that used to be obscure and “useless” that are now in high demand, and you never know where your inspiration will come from. The movers and shakers don’t just reproduce what educational experts have told them.

    To some degree, YOU decide how and when to use the knowledge that you’ve acquired. Make it useful. Work it into whatever you’re doing. At the very least use it for trivia night or cocktail parties.

    (Granted, I’m in the humanities, so this may not really apply so much to professional/technical programs. When I go to the doctor, I would like to be in the care of someone who paid attention to the application of standardized knowledge….)

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  1. [...] post at The Good “Men” Project sent me down the rabbit hole.  The piece, titled “Why Am I Afraid of Math?” written by Emily Heist Moss drew my attention as I wondered [...]

  2. [...] victims of gendered violence to tell their stories in order to de-stigmatize this experience. We call out department stores that sell shirts that tell our daughters if they are pretty they don’t have to [...]

  3. [...] a great post over at the good men project about the harm of the popular perception that women are crap at maths, particularly how it restricts young women, but also freaks out grown up women who suddenly [...]

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