In Defense of Mathematics: An Appeal in Favor of Many People’s Least Favorite Subject

May 18, 2024
3 mins read

Ella Young ’24
Staff Writer

“If you pay with cash, it’s free.”
“If I buy something and then return it, I’ve made money.”
“Botox counts as an investment.”

All three of these statements are real examples of so-called “girl math,” a trend that has recently taken Instagram, TikTok, and other social media platforms by storm. The trend involves a social media user — usually a woman — explaining their oftentimes logically flawed thought processes when it comes to money and finances. This is meant to provide a space for women to poke fun at the fact that their financial decisions, although based on flawed logic, seem to “just make sense.” It’s meant to be cute, fun, and relatable.

Instead, I find it disheartening.

The trend of “girl math” embodies the harmful and unfortunate sentiments around math that are all too prevalent among women — that math, real math, is a subject inaccessible to women. After all, does “girl math” not imply the existence of some other, “non-girl” math?

To me, “girl math” is reminiscent of the unfortunately-named “girl pushups.” “Girl pushups” refer to knee pushups, a modified, more beginner-friendly version of the classic exercise. There is no well-known opposite of “boy pushups;” there are just pushups. Likewise, the opposite of “girl math” is just math.

Perhaps that is why the girl math trend makes me so livid. As a woman who is a math major, attends a historically women’s college, and takes many math classes at other co-ed campuses, the distinction between “girl math” and “math” is all too reminiscent of the misogyny I’ve experienced in the classroom. This very distinction speaks to some larger issues about the way society teaches women to regard math: as a subject only accessible to women after it has been watered down, affixed with “girl” before it.

The best way to fight these issues? For women — regardless of their major — to take more math.

In the classroom, my male classmates have talked over me, disregarded me, and even once called me “unusual” to my face for being a Scripps math major. In addition to experiences like this, I have also noticed others affected by this mathematical misogyny. When I tell people my major, I am usually met with responses along the lines of “Wow, that’s crazy,” or “You’re built different.” However, for those who aren’t men, the responses also tend to take on a more self-deprecating tone: “I could never,” or “That’s way too smart for me.”

I will be the first to admit that the content of my major is challenging. But it’s not the inaccessible technical realm that so many women regard it to be. In fact, it is empowering.

I frequently joke that math is “school-sanctioned puzzle solving.” My assignments and exams involve solving problems and using logic to connect several, sometimes seemingly unrelated, ideas. The moment of figuring out a difficult problem, when everything suddenly “clicks,” is a feeling like no other. The ideas weave together, and you are left appreciating the beauty of what you’ve just done. Not just the beauty in the logic itself, but the beauty in the fact that you did it.

Don’t just take my word for it.

As a Scripps peer math tutor, many of the folks I work with come in underconfident, jaded, and resentful of the subject, often thanks to poor teachers and uninspiring classroom environments.

And yet, despite this oftentimes complicated history with the subject, I have still seen math resonate with them. Their faces light up as they finally grasp the complicated ideas they’ve been working towards. Many students who supposedly hate the subject, upon solving a complicated proof, admit that what they’ve just done is actually pretty cool.

Even non-math majors can see that despite its intimidating exterior of notation and Greek letters, math is a big old softie. Because every so often, with the right problem, or on the right day, every student I’ve worked with has had an “a-ha” moment of intrigue and empowerment. The moments that made me fall in love with the subject are the same moments that keep me going despite the hurdles the field can offer.

Having been socialized as a woman, I find myself and many of my friends here at Scripps overly apologizing, using qualifying language, and deprecating our abilities. Yet, math helps me unlearn this. I don’t need to qualify my ideas; I’m always proving that they are airtight. I don’t need to apologize for my solution; I completed it successfully and joyfully. I don’t need to self-deprecate; I am completing the same, difficult problems as the men who look down on me.

Calculus. Linear Algebra. Real Analysis. Abstract Algebra. It’s college-level material that offers a rich challenge, intellectual and emotional empowerment, and a counterexample to the field’s virulent misogyny, all in one. Math doesn’t just teach problem-solving; it teaches rigorous and definite defense of your ideas. And it’s for this reason that I encourage everyone ­— math lovers, math cynics, math majors, and math haters — to take a math class in college. Because, despite what anyone may have told you, math has something in it to empower everyone. That is my “girl math.”

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