Women and maths — what’s not adding up?
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“Why am I one of the only girls in my school studying A level maths?”
I’m rarely stumped by questions from students, but this one — from a 17-year-old student who attended a recent talk I gave at London’s Royal Institution — really made me think.
In the UK, all students have to study maths until the age of 16, with boys and girls achieving broadly similar GCSE results. However, the numbers who go on to study maths at A level reveal a striking gender split.
Female students accounted for 39.3 per cent of A level maths entries in 2018. For further maths, this dropped even further to 28.3 per cent.
While maths is the number one A level subject choice for boys, for girls it is fourth behind English, psychology and biology. What lies behind these numbers? As a maths teacher — and lover of puzzles — I have attempted to find out the answer, and explain how attitudes towards maths and numeracy have a direct bearing on our career aspirations and personal finances.
Research released this week from the charity National Numeracy found that while three-quarters of adults said they generally felt confident dealing with numbers and maths, the story was more nuanced at a gender level.
Among men, 84 per cent said they felt confident with the subject, but 64 per cent of women said the same. The study also found that women were more likely than men to hold negative emotions towards numbers. More than twice the proportion of women (29 per cent) than men (13 per cent) reported that using maths and numbers made them feel anxious.
The study was commissioned to mark the UK’s second National Numeracy day on Wednesday May 15, an initiative aimed at helping people “be confident and competent in using numbers and data” so they can make better decisions.
Here’s the statistic that first convinced me to sign up as an ambassador for the charity. Are you able to calculate the impact of a 5 per cent wage increase for a worker earning £9 per hour? With or without a calculator, this is the sort of question that 17m adults — nearly 50 per cent of the working-age population of England — struggle to answer correctly. Put simply, one in two adults have the numeracy skills we would expect from 11-year-old primary schoolchildren.
The answer is £9.45. You might have solved it by working out that 10 per cent of £9 was 90 pence, halving this to get the answer. Or you could have divided 9 by 100, then multiplied this by 105 to get the same result.
It doesn’t matter how you got there, or whether you used a calculator. The important thing is that you had the self-belief to work it out.
Although both men and women suffer a lack of confidence with numbers, the issue seems to affect women more. Why?
Rachel Riley, a fellow National Numeracy ambassador and resident numbers whizz on Channel 4’s Countdown, believes girls are “trained into self-deprecation, modesty and never, ever being vocally proud of our achievements, for fear of being labelled boastful”. This lack of confidence can hold women back, especially in a subject like maths.
If I had asked the percentages question in a school maths lesson, would you have raised your hand to say you knew the answer — or even shouted it out?
My anecdotal experiences of teaching in a secondary school classroom environment is that girls are more likely to downplay their understanding or achievement than equally capable boys in the same class. In educational circles, this is known as “self-concept”. Girls have been found to have a lower mathematics self-concept than boys of the same ability.
Research UCL’s Institute of Education has conducted with the Advanced Mathematics Support Programme, a government initiative, has looked at successful strategies to encourage girls’ participation in mathematics. One way was starting careers advice early, and showing students — girls in particular — the advantages of good maths skills across a range of disciplines.
Those studying A levels in subjects ranging from business studies and economics to geography and sociology all benefit from studying maths, at least as a supporting subject, due to the mathematical content of these courses.
Taking maths beyond GCSE studies at 16 can open up a host of careers, from financial, scientific and engineering roles to more unexpected paths such as theatre design, climate change modelling and computer games design.
Although mathematics is now the most popular A level subject, only one in eight students take it. The Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) thinks the proportion of young people who do no mathematics (or even arithmetic) after the age of 16 is still unacceptably high.
Mary Curnock Cook, an adviser to Hepi and former chief executive of UCAS, says this shows up in a lack of basic numeracy when students reach university or enter the workplace. One university biology lecturer told her: “I just wish they arrived knowing how to do fractions and percentages.”
Maths A level led to a City career
Yasmine Messaoud, 27, works as a swaps broker in the City of London. She joined ICAP, the interdealer broker, as a graduate trainee after studying a degree in maths.
“At school, I was aware that studying maths could open up a career in the City — but most people are not at that age,” she says.
Her uncle was a broker, and her brother — nine years older than Yasmine — had already started working in the City by the time she made her A level subject choices. “As soon as I heard the salary on offer, I thought I am 100 per cent going to do that.”
Some friends were puzzled by her choice. “The typical reaction was — are you going to be a maths teacher then? — as if that was all you could do,” she recalls.
Even so, Yasmine says the maths she uses in her job as a broker she “probably learned at GCSE level”. “As a swaps broker, you’re matching buyers and sellers of financial products. A lot of it is mental arithmetic, and studying the movement of curves. You need strong numeracy skills, but you also need a good memory — and the ability to build relationships with your clients.”
TP ICAP is supporting National Numeracy Day, and she believes better numeracy can boost any career.
“Maths is in everything. It trickles through to every job, and if you’re starting your own business you will need to do accounts and understand profit and loss.
“My top tip for parents? As a young child, my grandmother would get me to do sums and puzzles at home. I was ahead of the class before maths had really started. Even if you’re not that great at maths, you can still teach your child simple sums.” Claer Barrett
When Yasmine Messaoud, a 27-year-old City broker, told her friends at school that she wanted to study maths at A level, they asked: “Why? Do you want to be a maths teacher?”
By the age of 15, she already knew that wanted a career in the City (see above) and that maths would be a strong subject choice.
The importance of role models cannot be understated. At the academic end of the spectrum, we have the late Maryam Mirzakhani, who in 2014 became the first woman to win the Fields Medal, the most prestigious prize in mathematics.
In the school environment, female maths teachers can be excellent role models. The co-host of my Maths Appeal podcast, Susan Okereke, is a fellow teacher and an inspiration to her students.
But I think the most important influence could be closer to home.
At parents’ evenings, many mums and dads will tell me they found maths difficult at school and hence are not surprised that their children do so too — as if mathematical ability was genetic.
Yet research has shown that messages students pick up from their parents about maths and their parents’ relationships with numbers can change their attitudes towards the subject, and subsequent achievement.
The impact with mothers and daughters is even more alarming. A US study has found that when mothers told their daughters they were not good at maths in school, their daughter’s achievement levels declined almost immediately.
As a society, we need to move away from the myth of the “maths brain” — the belief that there are some people who can do maths and others who can’t.
Excluding the small percentage of people who suffer from a specific learning difficulty known as dyscalculia, many adults who say they can’t do maths have had negative experiences at school which shaped perceptions of their ability to use numbers confidently as adults.
Jo Boaler, professor of mathematics education at Stanford University, thinks that the version of mathematics most people know and experience from school affects their attitude towards the discipline later on.
She has coined the phrase “performance mathematics” to describe how maths students are commonly tested on their speed and accuracy, rather than thinking creatively about how to solve problems.
From studies of schoolchildren in England in 2010, Prof Boaler found that “performance maths” frequently leads to maths anxiety. “Few people like this version [of teaching maths]”, she said, adding that “women and girls particularly hate it”.
Her own research found “a particularly damaging practice that leads to anxiety is the timed testing of disconnected facts. This leads students to believe that mathematics is a subject that requires fast recall and encourages them to turn away from it. The recent government initiative to require young students to take regular timed tests will, I predict, increase maths anxiety and gender inequities across the country.”
Maths is the most popular subject for boys, but for girls it’s English
Boys’ top five most popular A level subjects by entries (2018)
- Maths 59,000
- Physics 29,000
- Chemistry 26,000
- Biology 23,000
- History 22,000
Girls’ top five most popular A level subjects by entries (2018)
- English 53,000
- Psychology 45,000
- Biology 40,000
- Maths 38,000
- Art & Design 32,000
Real world maths
In the real world, maths problems are not timed — but you often have to think creatively about complex and interesting problems, frequently collaborating with others. This could apply within the workplace, or to our own personal finances. Usually, the maths involved is simple — but the situation is complex. This is why having the confidence to tackle problems matters so much in real life.
The research from National Numeracy about women’s attitudes towards maths echoes the findings of similar studies looking into why fewer women invest in the stock market.
As an advocate of greater numeracy, I believe there are personal finance benefits for men and women who are more confident with numbers in general — whether that’s managing a budget, or working out the best deal on a financial product.
But I particularly like the investing parallel, as there have been several recent studies suggesting that women who do take the plunge actually outperform men when it comes to investment returns.
Nevertheless, public perceptions of women’s investment prowess are far less positive. A US study by Fidelity Investment found that only 9 per cent of people surveyed believed women could be better at investing than men.
Poor financial decisions can result. Research by Experian has found that nearly two-thirds of people who took National Numeracy’s “Essentials of Numeracy” online challenge had results that mirrored their credit score.
If a lack of confidence with numbers correlates with a lack of engagement with your finances, then the personal finance “hacks” offered below by Michael Martin of Seven Investment Management could provide a quick way of reconnecting, and thinking more creatively about the right solution for you.
All of us, male or female, can improve our relationship with maths and numbers. Even if you shudder at the thought of taking a maths test, National Numeracy’s online challenge is not “performance maths” — there’s no bonus for answering questions quickly, and you can use a calculator. It’s designed to pinpoint areas where there’s room for improvement and can direct you to further resources.
By opening your mind to maths, you could make better decisions — and even have more money in your pocket.
Bobby Seagull is a maths teacher and a doctoral student at the University of Cambridge. A long-suffering West Ham fan, he is co-host of the podcast Maths Appeal and the BBC’s Monkman & Seagull’s Genius Guide to Britain. A chartered accountant and former trader at an investment bank, he is author of “The Life-Changing Magic of Numbers”. Twitter: @Bobby_Seagull; Instagram: @Bobby_Seagull
Run these numbers over your personal finances
Michael Martin, relationship manager at Seven Investment Management, offers these maths hacks for everyday life.
To work out how much to save for retirement, multiply your target annual income (over and above the state pension) by 25.
It is generally believed that if you invest your pension pot in a moderately cautious or balanced strategy in retirement (in other words do not put it all in cash, which many people do), then you can take an income of 4 per cent a year and that should see you through the rest of your life.
It is not a guarantee — any more than eating five fruit and veg a day guarantees to keep you healthy — but it is a useful rule of thumb and it also helps you to work out your pension position easily.
Using this hack, you quickly realise you need £250,000 in savings for every £10,000 of retirement income. Ouch!
Similarly, if you want to know what your current retirement savings will generate (whether in pensions, Isas or a combination of both) simply divide by 25. Alternatively, knock two decimal places off the current figure and times by 4. For instance: £150,000, gives you £1,500 X 4 = £6,000 per year.
Divide 72 by the rate of inflation to see how many years it will take your savings to halve. The big threat those people putting all their pension money into cash face is inflation and this lovely little hack brings home the cost. So if inflation is 2 per cent, your cash will be worth half what it is today in 36 years. With inflation at 3 per cent, it will take just 24 years.
Here’s a quick way of calculating investment performance — divide 72 by the rate of return you are getting on an investment to see how many years it will take to double in value. If you are achieving a 6 per cent return, your money will double in 12 years; at 7 per cent it will take just over 10 years.
Here’s another poser. If your wealth manager is charging you a total of 1.5 per cent a year for looking after your £1m portfolio, how much would you save each year by moving to a manager who charges just 1.2 per cent? The answer is £3,000.
For every £100,000 you take out on a 25-year mortgage, increasing your monthly repayments by £200 will knock around 10 years off the payment term. An increase of just £100 knocks about six years off.
It is easy to underestimate how much difference paying extra on your mortgage can make, but it can run into many thousands of pounds. It is not easy to calculate the exact savings because there are so many variables, but the higher the interest rate, the bigger the benefit. Rates are historically low today but could increase in coming years. If you have the headroom to increase your repayments, this will soon pay off — but don’t neglect other forms of saving.