Are women in Britain frightened of maths? Ada Lovelace Day 2015

Shirley Conran

Who am I?

I’m not a mathematician; I’m a communicator, a writer and former editor on the Observer and the Daily Mail. For the last 11 years I have focused on the study of communication in teaching mathematics, and I founded Maths Action to improve maths performance in Britain.

When people ask me if I’m a feminist, I say I’m an opportunist — an equal opportunist. I want less privileged women to become more self-confident, more ambitious and to have more money. I want more women to be successful. And to do that, they need to enjoy maths and for that to happen, what’s needed is a change of attitude.

Human Curiosity

Humans seem to be programmed to ask “Why?” and “Why not?”. Ask any mother.

Curiosity, persistence in striving to understand — and then succeed — may be why we are no longer fish.

We all know the difference between asking questions of someone with a mind that is open to new ideas and a mind that is closed to them.

Growth Mindset

As you probably know, Professor Carol Dweck, social psychologist and pioneer researcher in the field of motivation, has called these two attitudes, a fixed mind-set and a growth mind-set.

People with a fixed mind-set believe that success is based on innate ability — and if you don’t have it there’s nothing you can do about it. People with fixed mind-set dread failure, because it proves that they are in some way — inferior, so they would rather not try something new — than risk failure.

People with a growth mind-set believe that success is based on being alert, and persistent , eager to learn, work hard and practise.

People with a growth mind-set know that success can be the result of failure. The standard example is inventor Thomas Edison, who failed persistently in “eight thousand” experiments before he produced the electric light bulb.

Without a growth mind-set you will never achieve your full potential of the advantages that you were born with, plus the skills you acquire.

Historical Conditioning

Unfortunately, British girls were historically raised to have a fixed mindset, as is proved by Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew”.

Historically, if a wife didn’t behave as her husband wished, she was called a shrew and ducked in the filthy village pond. If she asked too many questions. She was called, a nag or even a witch, in which case she might be burned alive at the stake. 8 million ‘witches’ were allegedly burned in Europe in the Middle Ages, which is more than the total of Holocaust deaths.

Eleven years ago, when I first started work on teaching techniques for maths, I soon noticed that many women are frightened of a row of noughts. If you replace the noughts with the capital letter M for million, B for billion, their apprehension dissolves and there is no / Brain Freeze.

I noticed many similar incidents and eventually discovered that Maths Anxiety — from mild apprehension to terror — is a medical condition, well documented by the medical profession, as long ago as 1970.

Maths anxiety in girls and women is deeply rooted in Britain, but not outside Britain, I was told by the Department for Education. Too few girls study Maths after the obligatory GCSE Maths exam. Many girls think they can drop this nasty subject and forget it on the day they leave school.

Because so many girls drop maths as fast as they can, Britain is wasting the talent of many potential mathematicians, and this has a knock-on effect on British industry, and so affects Britain’s global competitiveness. This is why getting girls into STEM careers is a political priority not only for the Education Secretary but also the Minister for Equalities, who is responsible for bad attitudes.

To a great extent, this negative attitude to maths for girls results from a stubborn, and damaging belief that many mothers have: they believe that boys are born with innate maths and money ability — but girls are not. This is not true.

Then there is the mental whalebone corset attitude.

Many mothers also believe that girls shouldn’t do what boys are encouraged to do: be brave, adventurous and tenacious: climb trees, ride motorbikes, sail alone across the Atlantic; learn maths and make money., improve the world abit.

A consequence is that when a girl is asked to solve a problem, she may give up at the first obstacle; but a boy will persevere.

In addition, many parents believe that maths is, in some mysterious way, “unfeminine” — an adjective that seems to threaten a sinister, hairy, hormonal change. The dictionary defines “feminine”, as “relating to women”. So we women are and ever shall be “feminine”, and no TV advertiser can alter that situation.

Because of their “natural” inability to do maths, many people still believe that women are incapable of managing money strategically. Housekeeping accounts are for women, but bigger financial decisions should only be made by men.

In fact almost anyone of any sex can do maths because maths is logical and children are logical. And when a female — of any age — discovers that she CAN do maths, what follows is joy and a new self — confidence.

I believe that with only grade 3 maths you can run a successful business — but not if you have been conditioned — indoctrinated — to believe that maths and money- making is for the boys — not the girls.

Culture Change

In order to change this situation, we need to change attitude. How can we do that?

We need to define the attitude and discover where they came from.

What has been lacking is some kind of explanation — not only of the reasons for these historically rooted and unconscious assumptions — but also why modern British women, across the income and education spectrum, will readily and cheerfully admit to being fearful of maths, to some extent from “apprehensive” to “brain freeze”.

Culture change — a change of attitude in a group, a tribe, or a nation — is the territory of anthropology, because it involves changing the underlying assumptions to which a tribe, a group or a nation conform.

So Maths Action commissioned a Report from an anthropologist, Dr Samantha Callan; called “The Fear Factor,” it was launched last month after a House of Lords reception and can be seen on the Maths Action website, which is not a website for people who can do maths, but for those who think they cant. (

F. The Origin of the Fear Factor

Gender taboos keep women away from the sacred keys to power in many tribal religions; taboos surround what women can do, and what women must not do and are historically upheld by the relevant religious institutions.

With a gender taboo, danger and curse are associated with one gender and must not encroach on what is decided is the natural territory of the other gender:

Fear effectively bars the way.

From the Middle Ages and perhaps earlier, women were deliberately kept ignorant of more than basic maths, because that was where the power lay: maths and science were seen as holding the keys to the way the world worked.

Historically in Britain, the Church pronounced that women who studied maths were defying mankind’s natural order and such behaviour was synonymous with danger, punishment, and other dire consequences, for the entire population; a plague of lowsts — or the plague.

Doctors reinforced this maths taboo; Doctors told parents that a girl’s womb would dry up if she bent her mind unnaturally towards maths. Even pioneering female educationalists of the late 19th century wondered whether girls should learn maths, because they had been told that all of a girl’s vital energy was used by her reproductive system.

Historically, the mainstream view was that cleverness — and particularly financial acumen — was unbecoming in girls who wanted to get married. A clever woman was not sexually attractive, and no man wanted to be challenged or contradicted in his own home.

This was a serious threat, at a time when a girl’s option was marriage or failure; if you were unattractive to men but somehow managed to get married, then you would be unable to have children — so FAILURE AS A WOMAN. With your cleverness, you might get poorly paid jobs as a governess, but all the professional were closed to women.

Understandably, the collective social impact was to frighten British women away from maths. The results persist: prejudice is a deeply rooted, social problem.

The Attitude Survey

Maths Action also commissioned a small, 400 girl Attitude Survey in Langley Park School for Girls (in Kent), to check current, schoolgirl attitudes to maths, money and the Cinderella Syndrome — the belief that when you grow up, it’s not your job to look after yourself financially because some man will always do it for you.

This survey, called What’s It Got To Do With Me? shows that today’s girls still want to marry and have children but the difference is that they nearly all expect to pay half the household bills. But clearly, divorce, death and similar calamities did not enter their calculations, and they had no idea how to deal financially with such disasters.

There is another female negative attitude that concerns me personally, and explains why I have not rowed across the Atlantic. I only realised this when I was doing research for The Fear Factor.

I was born only 4 years after all British women got the vote in 1928, and I was seven years old when World War 2 started, so I could see that — suddenly — women were no longer “ladylike” but acting tough: with bravery and initiative they drove buses, made Spitfires, dealt with fire, bomb craters, death, devastation and general chaos.

And then in the Fifties women reverted to acting dainty. Once again marriage was almost the only career open to the majority of women, and if you didn’t marry, then you were a failure as a woman.

All my adult life I had wondered why I had no initiative but performed well when — as often happened — I was pushed in the deep end. This was because I had been conditioned by the women in my life — mother, aunts, gran — to behave like a good girl: obedient and docile; meek and submissive. So, mentally, I was still wearing the whalebone corset. But the Real Me is a pioneer with a can-do attitude, able to struggle out of the nasty stuff, and forge ahead. Or that’s what I like to think.

Today, some girls’ schools are aware of this indoctrinated docility and are determined to take active steps to throw away the whalebone corset. I don’t know whether these steps involve mud wrestling or boy scouting or a modified commando course but I suspect that they will do the trick. And this is why.

Once I wanted to do a simulated parachute jump — research for a book — and to do so I had to go on an Outward Bound course, in the Lake District: the course consisted of some nosiy young men and a couple of quiet women. The object was to train middle management to be executive.

My clearest memory is of a rain-sodden lakeside, where two teams each built a raft — and then raced each other across the lake — raft A hoping raft B would sink, and vice versa. I remember both teams were being urged on by their screaming leaders, both of whom were the quiet women.

So it’s possible for women to dump the docile attitude quite quickly.

Mathematician Ada Lovelace was also creative, proactive, diligent and tenacious. So I’m sure she would approve of these new challenges to the cultural attitudes that may have thwarted her — and that unfortunately persist, to hold back potential mathematicians today.