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How can we make maths work for women and girls? Rachel Riley, Katya Jones and Iona Bain discuss

17 May 2023

If you're a woman and you feel a lack of number confidence has been holding you back in life, then you’re not alone.

Our research has found a quarter of women (24%) are anxious about numbers - twice as many as men. 

Rachel Riley, Katya Jones, Iona Bain BNN Women and Girls

Rachel Riley, Katya Jones and Iona Bain want to do something about it. The National Numeracy Ambassadors have teamed up to discuss their own experiences in a bid to help women and girls feel more comfortable about numbers and maths.

The stars have taken part in a Big Number Natter in support of National Numeracy Day, 17 May. 

Their discussion explores some of the barriers facing women and girls when it comes to numeracy, as well the negative effects of low number confidence on women's lives and livelihoods.

Watch Rachel, Katya and Iona's discussion

Countdown's Rachel talked about how kids can be put off maths from a young age: “Some kids, if they’re told at a really young age: ‘Maths isn’t for you,’ or: ‘You don’t have a maths brain’ – this fictional maths brain – then you can switch off from it and you believe that.

“I think one of the keys things when we’re talking about women and girls is that women are more likely to be influenced by external sources than boys are. I think we need to change the PR around how we talk about maths and numeracy in general but also women in these fields.”

“I completely agree with this idea that if you have that negative experience early on it then just becomes a negative cycle that keeps perpetuating itself,” adds Morning Live's money expert Iona. “That’s why when you’re young it’s so important to not say: ‘I am not a maths person,’ or: ‘I am not a numbers person.’”


Among the findings the trio discuss are:

  • Women are twice as anxious about maths as men (24% vs 12%)*
  • 40% of women said they don’t think they are a numbers person, compared to 23% of men*
  • 33% of women said if a job they were interested in listed "using numbers and data" as a requirement, it would put them off applying, compared to 20% of men.*
  • Women are disproportionally affected by negative experiences of maths at school**
  • Women reported greater negative impact on earnings, progression at work and career choices from not having a Level 2 maths qualification (equivalent to GCSE maths grade C/4) than men**
  • 35% of young women aged 18 to 21 aren’t confident making financial decisions***

Advice on changing your approach to maths

During the course of their chat, Rachel, Katya and Iona have some advice for anyone wanting to feel more positively about everyday maths.

Strictly Come Dancing star Katya said: “Especially on National Numeracy Day, my message would be: Don’t be afraid to go wrong. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

“I definitely hear: ‘I can’t dance’ from people or: ‘I’ve got two left feet,’ as much as people say: ‘I can’t do maths, I don’t have a maths brain.’

"I can definitely say with confidence that it’s just another skill like we learned to drive a car. Everybody learns at a different pace and it’s another skill that we can pick up or get better at or improve on.”

The benefits of the National Numeracy Challenge

Meanwhile, the number natterers are keen to recommend the National Numeracy Challenge, a free online tool from the charity, which helps improve numeracy confidence and skills.

“Lower attainment and number confidence has greater impact in careers and earning, career choices, and even things like health outcomes,” explains Rachel. “Physical and mental health wellbeing can be linked to confident numeracy skills so there are so many reasons to get out there and give the National Numeracy Challenge a go today.”

“With something like the National Numeracy Challenge, it’s not something that has to take up a lot of time,” says Iona. “It takes 10 minutes and it’s that little, tiny first step towards you getting more confident and doing something that’s going to have knock on effects for the whole of your life, particularly for your finances.

"Remember that it’s not a competition! What I love about the Challenge is that it’s just about your own progress, you don’t have to pay attention to what anyone else is doing.”

Katya adds: “That’s how I found National Numeracy. I went: ‘Let me just give this a go,’ and as you get better you get more confident and you want to do more. It’s those tiny little positive steps that make all the difference.”

What can be done to make maths work for women and girls?

National Numeracy believes the fact that women typically have lower levels of number confidence than men, which raises a high barrier to opportunities, career choices and earnings. Women and girls need to feel inspired and included in numeracy at every stage of the lifelong learning journey. 

The charity calls for open acknowledgement and increased awareness of the gender barriers and culture around maths should be supported by an expanded evidence base of what would make maths work for women and girls.

Government should ensure this evidence is taken into account in future education plans for both children and adults. Our own National Numeracy Leadership Council has set up a working group on women and girls, led by Capital One UK CEO Lucy-Marie Hagues.


Methodology of research: 

* National Numeracy commissioned YouGov to conduct a survey of 2,229 adults (18+) between 12th - 13th September 2022, to assess levels for numeracy and explore attitudes towards maths and numbers. The survey was carried out online. The final weighted sample is representative of all UK adults (aged 18+). 

** Research commissioned by National Numeracy and carried out by Research Partners between July and October 2022. Focussing on users of the National Numeracy Challenge, 1,025 users were surveyed and 24 in-depth interviews with users were conducted. 

*** The Confidence Gap: Women and Number Confidence, National Numeracy.