Math is a basic skill

As a Woman In Tech™, I catch wind of various stories about how the tech world is such a good/bad/mediocre place for women. This is the first of my posts that addresses the subject, but first I wish to offer a minor disclaimer. In discussions of the lack of women in STEM fields, people often cite a pipeline problem—that not enough women have the education to get into these fields in the first place. Others cite issues with attrition due to company culture, family status, or other issues. As a developer near the beginning of my career, I feel more equipped to talk about the pipeline problem than other issues, which is not a means of saying that I don’t think the other issues exist or are not important, only that I am not the best person to speak to them.

With that out of the way, I want to address an attitude that is not specific to women, but that I think affects women disproportionately in their primary and secondary education in math.

“Math just isn’t my thing.”
“I’ve never been good with numbers.”
“Math is too hard.”

I’m willing to guess that most of us have heard, or perhaps even said, something along the lines of the above statements at one point or another. How did the person to whom the statement was addressed respond? Perhaps with a shrug or a reassurance that they felt the same way. Now imagine the same interaction, but instead of math, the original statement is about reading or literacy. What is the reaction? I’m guessing it’s not a shrug.

This is not to say that math and literacy are not difficult things to master. Both can be challenging. Some people will find one more enjoyable than the other. However, while literacy is generally thought of as a pretty non-negotiable skill to acquire in the course of your education, math is not seen in the same way. With pushes to stop teaching algebra and the generally accepted attitude that math just “isn’t your thing,” people duck out of their math education before establishing the basic competencies necessary to go into STEM fields.

This excellent article goes over some pervasive misconceptions on the subject of math education, but basically, high school math education should be within everyone’s reach, and we, as students, parents, mentors, and teachers, should not so easily allow ourselves to abandon that goal. Math is hard, and it can be frustrating, and it doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people, but none of these are reasons to stop learning it. Just because something does not initially come easily to us does not mean it is outside of our ability to learn, and I feel that the aversion to failure can block us not only from career opportunities, but from meaningful learning experiences. (This sentiment, by the way, applies far beyond math education, but that is what we will continue to focus on here.) People coming into college without at least a knowledge of pre-calculus or preferably calculus itself, will be facing an uphill battle to enter majors and eventually careers in science, technology, engineering, and math. And with all the other challenges that women face in this regard, why let this be another one?

I mention this in the context of women in technology, since I’ve observed that women tend to be more likely to bow out of math education earlier, probably partly due to difficulty and not engaging with the material and partly due to other societal or gender related biases. So encourage the children in your life to keep pushing through math. Try to find material to engage their interests if their school curriculum isn’t (I’ll try and compile a post of links for resources, if you have any please post them in the comments).

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