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'Stop Saying You're Bad at Math' from Women's Leadership Author, Speaker and Consultant Selena Rezvani

Stop Saying You're Bad at Math

[ Monday, Dec 23, 2013 ]

Why is it so commonplace to hear women declare that “they’re terrible at math?”  Do we have an allergy to figures?  A lack of interest?   Or is there a wider perception that we’ve digested that women are somehow less adept with numbers?  Either way, what a truly useless notion.   

What may sound like an outdated stereotype in fact endures and does nothing to improve women’s representation at the top of companies, or their potential to become high earners in senior level, bottom-line oriented roles.  I loved the advice of an executive I interviewed for The Next Generation of Women Leaders, Catherine J. Mathis, then the Senior Vice President of Corporate Communications at The New York Times Company.  She advised, “I’m a huge proponent of women understanding finance, accounting and economics. I believe all business professionals need a strong foundation in these areas, especially finance; it can be one more arrow in their quiver. Some women seem to have some kind of phobia about finance despite the fact that it’s a vital tool and the lingua franca of business.” Similarly, Donna Callejon, COO at GlobalGiving advised, “Many women tend to take jobs that require less of a “bottom-line” orientation. I think it’s important to have some analytical rigor within your skill base. I’ve been helped in every single job I’ve had by having training in economics.”

In their eye-opening book Failing at Fairness, husband and wife team Myra and David Sadker discuss how our education system has historically failed girls. The Sadkers conducted numerous studies where they observed differences between how boys and girls were educated in the public school system. They explained in their research findings that there is “a syntax of sexism so elusive that most teachers and students were completely unaware of its influence.” The subtle, elusive nature of gender bias in schools shaped many people’s paradigm of adolescent and adult females’ capabilities. As the messages that we deliver to our own children change and improve over time, expectantly the perception of a female math deficiency will diminish and eventually die.

Despite stereotypes of women and math, research substantiates what we know deep down: that women are totally equal to men in mathematical abilities. A recent study in Science, for example, showed that girls score just as well as boys in standardized math tests in the United States. Janet Hyde and her research team were able to compare the performance of over 7 million children—across 10 states—by gender. Their finding was that there was no difference in the scores of boys versus girls, not even in high school. What’s more, when we pretend to be someone other than ourselves, our math performance can actually improve.  You perform at the level you tell yourself you can. 

Whether or not negative perceptions of women and math stem from society at-large, our gender specific conditioning, or other factors, messages that we heard as girls clearly affected how proficient we and others think we can be at math.  Summarizing how “numbers knowledge” has helped her career, Lora J. Villarreal, Ph.D., then the Executive Vice President and Chief People Officer at Affiliated Computer Services, Inc. (ACS), noted, “You need a working, functional knowledge of numbers—this has been very important for me. It doesn’t matter what role you have, you will always need to prove your end performance by using numbers. You need to speak and understand the numbers language like everyone else.”

Budding leaders require the ability to regularly quantify figures—whether predicted futuristically, measured historically, or calculated based on certain conditions. If a job with a quantitative component presents itself, DO NOT discount your skills or abilities. You need to know enough about numbers to ask good questions and “be dangerous,” but you don’t need a PhD in math to do it.  Whatever gaps you have can be learned on the job.  Try it before you dismiss it!