Fredrickson: You’re not as bad at math as you think

Michelle Fredrickson

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by the Collegian or its editorial board.  

For most of my life I thought I was bad at math.

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This isn’t true. I’m actually quite good at math. But it wasn’t until the end of my undergraduate degree and the beginning of my master’s that I started to realize it.

Math made me nervous. It was always presented in middle and high school as something you either had an aptitude for or didn’t, which is not really the case for subjects like math. This leads to people struggling initially and rather than recognizing that it takes practice to be good at math, simply writing themselves off as being bad at math. This erroneous belief becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because the more a person believes they are bad at math, the harder it becomes for them to recognize that it isn’t true.

I remember a friend in high school telling me it was okay for me not to immediately understand everything perfectly in math because girls weren’t supposed to be good at it anyway. This is a belief I internalized.

This is something psychologists call ‘entity theories.’ These theories refer to the way people think being innately good or bad at something based on a characteristic like gender changes how they perform. Most women can remember hearing that math and science are boy’s things. I know I took that message in from many places, so even though my family encouraged STEM involvement, I still struggled to believe I could do it.

When my friends and teachers told me not to worry about math not coming easily because girls are better at social science anyway, I accepted that explanation and embraced things that came easier.

Writing, for me, was something I could do without much effort. I didn’t really have to practice. From the time I was in elementary school, people told me I was a good writer and would be a fool not to pursue that skill. It was all too easy to embrace that skill and eschew others.

I thought that if I was good at math, it would come as easily and naturally to me as writing did, a common misconception particularly directed at young women. 

Editors of a prominent mathematics journal call this ‘the brilliance effect.’ This is the feeling that being good at something like math is the result of natural brilliance, not hard work and persistence. Women are told frequently that they lack the brilliance required to be in any STEM field, and that persistence and hard work isn’t what is necessary to succeed in the field.

In reality, natural brilliance is not the driving factor in success. Hard work and dedication is.

In society, women are often told they aren’t going to be good at math and are directed more toward social science, which is then erroneously called ‘soft’ science. This is a well-documented phenomenon, and it’s insidious. Both men and women vastly underestimate women’s math skills, even though studies have shown that women are no less mathematically capable than men are.

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On an intellectual level I had always known that women could be good at math and science, but I thought it was a special kind of woman who was different or unique who could do that – not me. This is another common belief called the tokenization of women in science. Our culture reinforces this belief whether you realize it or not with stereotypes and gender roles.

I thought that if I was good at math, it would come as easily and naturally to me as writing did, a common misconception particularly directed at young women. 

The first time I remember thinking I might not be terrible at math was in trigonometry in high school, which was my favorite class that year. I found the puzzle-solving practicality of it all really fun. But I told myself, ‘you’re a writer. This is a one-off. You can’t be good at math.’

The truth is, I can be good at math and I am good at math. I ended up adding a math-based field to my master’s degree because of how much I relished the quantitative data analysis part.

Math isn’t something that you are going to be immediately good at or bad at, but we are so often told that it is. So much of the reason people think they hate math is purely psychological, because consciously or not, society is telling them that they are supposed to hate math.

Well, that isn’t true. Everyone, especially women, need to think critically about the messages they’ve received that make them think they are either good or bad at something.

Don’t be afraid of math just because our culture tells you that you aren’t supposed to be able to do it.

Michelle Fredrickson can be reached at letters@collegian.com or online at @mfredrickson42