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International Women's Day: Rachel Riley on women and numbers

6 Mar 2019

To mark International Women's Day, Rachel Riley blogs about the current gap between men and women when it comes to confidence with numbers, inviting women everywhere to ignore their doubts and start believing in themselves.

Even before the end of my interviews to study maths at uni, I’d already decided I hadn’t got in.  The questions were really tough, and compared to the other interviewees, I hadn’t done nearly as well.  The boys would come out of the tests bragging about how great they’d gone, and I’d come out of mine, full of self-doubt and remembering all the bits that I wasn’t quite sure of.  Well, I did get in to uni, and I went on to do rather well there, even if I do say so myself!  But that, in a sweeping generalisation of a nutshell, is the difference I see over and over, between boys and girls in maths.

Rachel Riley

The importance of self-belief

However simple or complex it may seem, maths is all about confidence, and whether you believe you’re capable of doing it or not, plays a huge part in your likelihood of winning the maths battle.  As girls, we’re trained into self-deprecation, modesty and never, ever being vocally proud of our achievements, for fear of being labelled boastful - and guess what - it’s holding us back!

Even though we often do better throughout our school lives, studies have shown that from the age of 6, girls can start to believe that ‘brilliance’ is a male trait.  We hear about ‘male’ and ‘female’ brains, we’re told we’re naturally caring, and somehow this leads us to not being as suited to maths and science as our male counterparts.  We’re shown picture after picture of the men who’ve made history through discoveries and inventions, rarely mentioning that the ladies behind them, weren’t permitted to study like their husbands, so it’s no wonder there are so few female maths icons to look to - which has nothing to do with our brains even one little bit.  And this message about women and maths is enduring to this day, filtering right down from grandmothers and mothers, to 6 year olds.

Regaining your maths confidence

But now we know this, we can do something about it!  Whether you decided early on that maths ‘wasn’t for you’, or someone else decided on your behalf, it’s never too late toun-decide, and go back and regain your maths confidence.

Maths isn’t supposed to be easy, and you don’t have to get everything right instantly, all of the time to be number-confident.  No-one would ever expect you to know every word in the English dictionary before you can say you speak English, and equally, no-one expects you to be up there with Einstein (or Ada Lovelace) when talking about your numeracy, either.

Everyone does have what it takes to be confidently numerate, if they’re willing to put some time and effort in.  And once it’s with you, it’s there forever!  Don’t listen to your doubts and your maths anxieties, listen to your positive side who’s sure you can succeed! 

Taking it step by step, your confidence will grow, and the ideas that may seem alien at first, will soon start feeling normal.  The more these ideas feel natural, the more your confidence will grow, until you’re fully numbers-happy, and you can proudly give yourself that immodest pat on the back that you’ll rightly deserve.  You can decide to change your mindset, and it may improve your life - give it a try, you might even find you like it!  

Photo Credit: Alan Strutt

Other blogs in the International Women's Day 2019 series:

National Numeracy on why we are all numbers people

Read more

Melanie Richards on leadership and diversity

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Jo Boaler on gender and anxiety

Read more

Inspired to brush up on your number skills?

The National Numeracy Challenge is a free and easy-to-use website to check your everyday maths skills and improve your confidence with numbers. ​You can use the Challenge on your phone, tablet or home-computer. Save your progress as you go - no timer means you can dip in and out in your own time. It’s ideal for brushing up, or for catching up on learning you missed, and it’s all about the maths you need in daily life and at work – no algebra or trigonometry.