Math anxiety – one of those pesky women’s problems?

Charles Demuth, "I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold"

My face is red – well, at least pink – because of a glaring error in the math for my contest. I wrote, “I’m about to reach a milestone on this blog  – 50,000 hits! My stat meter when I logged on this morning at 8:58 a.m. stood at 48,888, so based on my current number of visits, over 300 per day, I expect to hit 50,000 sometime today!”

At that point I had 1,112 hits left to go, and there’s no way I could have racked up that many visits in one day. Three or four days, yes; one day – no way! Perhaps it’s a tribute to my readers’ trust that nobody questioned my math skills. Maybe they should have. The contest is still on, though, and I’ll probably have a winner by midweek, so keep leaving those comments. I’ve added one additional rule: no one who already owns my books is eligible. I treasure those readers I have, but my goal here is to acquire some new ones.

Actually, I’ve always been quite good at math, but like many women, I suffer from acute math anxiety, and my attitude is avoidant in the extreme. This became glaringly obvious in my high school years in Milwaukee, where I was one of a dozen or so winners in a city-wide math contest sponsored by an insurance company. It was my first awards banquet, and they gave me a check – not huge, maybe $100 or so – which I misplaced and never cashed. Perhaps it was because I didn’t want to become an actuary – as it turned out, that was the ulterior motive of the contest sponsors.

The pattern continued in college. I won early admission to Radcliffe, and managed to avoid mathematics during my two years there. My major was Social Relations, Soc Rel for short, a cutting-edge combination of anthropology, psychology and sociology. But when I transferred to Barnard, there was no such major. I considered psychology, but that would have meant taking basic statistics. The very notion terrified me, so I ended up in art history, one of the most useless majors imaginable. (I wanted studio art, but the “heavenly seven” Ivy League women’s colleges had no such major.)

Years later, deciding to go for a PhD in psychology, I finally had to confront that dreaded statistics course as a prerequisite. I enrolled at a community college and studied like mad, but before the midterm, instead of turning up for class, I panicked, wandered over to the registrar’s office and withdrew from the course – the only time in my life I dropped a course, except for a web design course a couple of years ago, but that’s another story. (I finally tried statistics again and got an A, but I abandoned my doctoral ambitions. That’s another story, too.)

My daughter has inherited both my mathematical ability and my mathematical phobia – why, I don’t know. Did I pass it along in my genes, or was it something about my attitude? Like me, she’s learned to transcend the anxiety and confront math when necessary. But what is it about mathematics that inspires such dread among women? Danged if I know. I’m sure feminist scholars have lots of theories, and maybe even some hard evidence. But perhaps I’m overgeneralizing, and there are lots of women out there who confront mathematical challenges with gusto. Perhaps math anxiety is fading into the past, and younger generations of women have no such fears.

What about you? Do you suffer from math anxiety, or do you love math? I welcome your comments. Meanwhile, remember my contest is still on, and you still have a chance to win one of my books. I hope I’ve learned from my previous error, and I can do the basic arithmetic to figure how many visits I need to hit that monumental 50,000 mark.

11 thoughts on “Math anxiety – one of those pesky women’s problems?

  1. I had math anxiety, math phobia for years and years. When I was in nmy 30s and had my own busines, I hired a tutor to help me overcome it. It helped somewhat, but I’m still terrible at math and don’t like to use it if I don’t have to. I sure hope it’s better for girls now than when I was in school, when we weren’t expected to excel in math or science.

  2. I am pretty good with basic math i.e. subtraction and addition but I won’t go near calculus and trig and stuff like that. I loved algebra when I was taking it in junior high and geometry when I was taking it but that was a long time ago and I’ve forgotten all of it. I know enough math to do the things I need to do and that is enough for me.

    Do please tell us in one of your blogs why you decided not to go for your doctorate.

    What was the highest degree you earned?

    Good luck with your contest. Betsy

  3. Karen, thanks for checking in – another kindred spirit!

    Betsy, the second painting is an encaustic by Jasper Johns. I could swear I included that in a caption, but WordPress deleted it and to fix it, I’d have to delete the photo and do the whole thing again. I always try to credit the artist when I use paintings. One of these days I’ll get more of my own up here.

    As for my degrees, I have an MFA in painting from Columbia University and an MA in art therapy from NYU. As for why I gave up on the doctorate, it’s easy – I was running a home health care agency at the same time, and doing both was madness! At this point, having more initials after my name wouldn’t do me much good, though maybe I’ll get myself a mail-order diploma some day so I can call myself Doctor.

    • Here is great. Congratulations – you’re a winner! It couldn’t happen to a more deserving person. You’ve been so faithful in commenting on my blog that I’ll send you both books!

      You can send me an e-mail with your snail mail address. Contact me at I vow to get them out this week.

      I encourage people to visit Karen’s blog, Following the Whispers. She writes memoir, and her candid sharing online is an inspiration.

    • Thanks for replying, Jean. As you can see, you’re just eight minutes too late, right behind Karen. Maybe we could trade books, though! Let me know – my e-mail address is in the response to Karen.

  4. I loved math in high school, thought maybe I’d major in it in college. Then totally lost interest in college. Now, math is a maze for me. Takes me a while to figure it out.

    On the other hand, I fell in love with writing and public speaking. So, it all worked out for the best.

    Straight From Hel

  5. Thanks for checking in, Helen – you’re very close.

    Karen, Jean and Helen are all with the online Blog Book Tours group, a major source of inspiration and motivation over the past year. A shout-out to the group’s leader, Dani Greer, for making this all possible! You can find the link to the group in my blogroll to the right. They have a Yahoo group that’s open to newbies.

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