Feminist icon Shirley Conran on the maths gender gap

For younger readers who aren’t familiar with Shirley Conran and her work, let’s get you up to speed on a really remarkable lady.

Shirley is one of Britain’s most successful authors, having achieved classic status with her seminal “feminist bonkbuster” Lace (the Guardian’s words, not ours!) and several other books, including her non-fiction manifesto “Superwoman”. She is also an acclaimed journalist and now patron of Maths Action, an organisation aiming to help young women, in particular, overcome what Shirley calls “maths anxiety”.

Iona spoke to Shirley earlier this year for an article about her maths anxiety for the Sunday Times, and they’re now working together on a campaign to bring greater awareness to this issue. Here is what Shirley has to say about the gender gap in maths – and how it affects our financial confidence in the process.

Why do people – especially women – get maths anxiety? People don’t get history or geography anxiety. The problems usually begin from age 5 upwards: no baby is born with maths anxiety. But it becomes like measles. You catch it from others.

Maths anxiety can exist in all schools, so it’s got to be down to our curriculum. I once said to a very qualified mathematician that I don’t believe the maths syllabus has changed since 1870, when compulsory education was introduced. She told me that it hasn’t been changed since Henry VIII drew up a programme of study his study. So I am convinced that it’s the maths programme itself [that induces anxiety]. It’s a very general syllabus that was drawn up, I now suspect, by various Tudor advisers! Just think what could happen if the maths course was re-thought. But it would be very difficult, expensive and would take a long time.

Mathematicians aren’t very good communicators, they will be the first to admit that. If if you imagine a hot cross bun, the top left hand side may where all natural mathematicians lie. The top right side is the creative skillset, the bottom left side might represent organisation but the bottom right side – the absolute opposite from maths – would be communication. But all teachers need to communicate in a language that people can understand. The syllabus needs to be redesigned by communicators.

The government is losing half of the brains of this country because girls believe they are no good at maths. Going up to secondary school is a very difficult thing to adjust to, and maths can all too easily become the scapegoat for the problems teenage girls are experiencing elsewhere. They put all resentment and hatred they might feel in this one basket. My iPad maths programme, Money Stuff, is aimed at interesting girls aged 14 in maths, by communicating this subject in the language they understand. It’s like a magazine, designed with magazine principles.

Several teachers have told me that you can only really get 5 minutes of pure attention in a 40 minutes maths period. So providing beautiful, delightful pictures, but with a caption that relates to maths – that can be one way to do it. You’ve also got to make it interactive. It gives you immediate results, hooks you into the programme, makes you possess it.

People say they hate maths but I ask them: “do you hate money?” Usually, they say “no!” Maths in my mind is mainly about how to handle money. And that’s why it’s crucial that women have the means to overcome maths anxiety. Every mother in the land who says “I’m bad at maths” is very often dooming her daughter in the process too. The girl’s mathemtical performance and confidence immediately dies if she hears her mum talking like that. We have to be very careful about the messages we communicate to our daughters.

The more I looked into the origins of maths anxiety among women, stretching back centuries, the crosser I got. You have to admit that past mistakes are influencing the present. Basically, it is 17th century clergy and doctors influencing British women to think they were bad at maths, and the misperception has remained.

Some people learn quicker than others. My son is a gifted mathematician but a slow reader. We can’t all be wonderful at everything. So don’t worry if maths doesn’t feel entirely natural or quick to you – but don’t be afraid of it either.

Stay tuned for more on our campaign as it progresses!

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