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A Millennial Woman Speaks Out on “the Math Thing”

Alana Lipson, Cornell graduate and Associate Analyst at Mastercard, spent her academic career studying marketing, strategy and psychology. As a guest contributor to sheBOOM, she shares with us the facts and her honest perspective about why women shy away from math.

Here are Alana’s words (and numbers)…

“‘I’m bad at math,’ I say jokingly while abdicating the latest financial responsibility or opportunity that comes my way to a male counterpart.

  • The mathletes portion of my high school’s ‘battle of the classes’ competition.
  • The financial analysis section of my ‘Intro to Business’ group assignment.
  • The team budget at work.

You get the point. Regardless of the situation, my reaction is pretty much the same: if it involves numbers, I’m out.

But why? Why do I and many women tend to shy away from financial responsibilities and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) professions? Especially with accurate financial planning being such an important, if not the most important, component of a successful business.

Is it biology? Genetics? The stereotype threat?

When searching for answers, I looked to a book written by one of my college professors, The Mathematics of Sex by Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams. The authors prove through research, that women do in fact have the mathematical aptitude and skills, but tend to choose different careers, outside of the STEM field.

In fact, on average, females typically do better than males in mathematics courses, and “comprise 48% of mathematics majors in college.” Additionally, women receive equal numbers of PhDs in STEM-related fields. However, they are less represented in mathematically intensive faculty positions. So why do women, who are capable of obtaining PhDs, ultimately choose not to enter the field? The book highlights a few reasons:

  • Motherhood: In the STEM field, especially in a research faculty role that involves tenure, it very difficult to reintegrate after a prolonged leave such as maternity leave.
  • Biology and Hormones: Due to higher levels of the hormone oxytocin, women tend to have an orientation toward people, and seek careers and opportunities that allow them more interaction with others.
  • Confidence: The stereotype threat is real. In one study, female high school students did worse on a spatial skills test after being told males were better at solving spatial problems because of genetic differences.

Speaking of confidence, deep down, I know I’m not bad at math. I’ve actually excelled in my math, science, and business classes (despite some minor challenges — i.e., complex fractions). However, I also know that I enjoy contributing in more creative and other analytical ways (that don’t necessarily involve math), and I think that is okay—with one caveat:

We must continue to progress and possess math skills, be confident, and never hand over financial responsibilities to men because we don’t think we have the smarts or skills to do it ourselves—we do. The numbers don’t lie.”

Thank you Alana for your great insights! Hope to be reading more of your contributions on sheBOOM soon!