I had two separate meetings last week with incredibly successful businesswomen who both casually commented how they weren’t good at math. These women are in tech, lead teams, and are role models in highly analytical, metrics-driven positions. They manage millions of dollars in budgets, are responsible for the performance of multiple revenue streams, and one of them does all this for a Japan-based company and deals with currency conversions.
What the hell?! Why in the world do they think they’re not good at math?
Research proves that men and women are equally skilled at math but it also shows that both genders have an unconscious bias against women when it comes to perceived ability, even when presented with evidence that suggests otherwise.It’s one thing to let idiotic stereotypes such as “women are bad drivers” roll off our backs because they’re not worth arguing about but it is incredibly damaging to ignore prejudices about a skill set that lies at the core of all things science, engineering, and technology.
But that’s not even what was eating at me. Gender bias against women in mathematical or technical fields isn’t new but the comments from my friends definitely pushed a new button for me so there had to be something else. After stewing on it for a day, I finally figured out what it was.
In order to judge if we’re good or bad at something, we must have some type of scale. For instance, if I can play Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (ranked one of the five hardest piano pieces to play), then I must be pretty damn good. If I can barely play Chopsticks, then I can play, just not very well. But there’s an entire universe of pieces in between that represent an infinite amount of skill levels. Women seem to have a binary scale about math. Either we’re good at it or we’re not. And our self-imposed metric for being good is if we can play Rachmaninoff.
Just because you can’t count cards in Vegas, recite the digits of pi out 15 decimal places, do calculus in your head, or count a box of toothpicks that drop on the floor does not mean you are bad at math. I have a degree in mathematics and I can’t do any of that (although counting cards could be handy). We’re walking around with a ridiculous mental standard for what “good” is and it’s undermining our ability to own something that is already ours.
Do you work with spreadsheets? Do you balance your checkbook, approve departmental budgets, negotiate compensation packages, manage a cap table, or use CRM data? Do you track your calories, cholesterol, heart rate, daily steps, laps or weight? Do you have a sales quota, play fantasy football, do your own taxes, or meter your wireless minutes?
Do you invest in stocks, track a 401K, or save for college? Do you check your blood sugar, manage a loved one’s medication doses, or do SEO? If you answered yes to any of those, you have some skill level with numbers. Gas prices change daily yet I bet you know exactly how much it costs to fill your tank.
Stop saying you are bad at math. Not just because it’s unconscious self-talk that erodes gender progress in fields that desperately need more women, but also because it’s not true.