A STEM girl’s confession: I was bad at math too

The response to my post about why you should stop saying you are bad at math was mostly supportive, but it still dredged up the exact sort of enraging comments that inspired the post in the first place. A few women, some of them friends who I otherwise admire, chose to reply with jokes or excuses along the lines of “you don’t understand; I’m just really bad at math.” One admitted she responded before reading the post, which further demonstrates my point that people are so flippant about their math problems that they feel the need to joke about their ineptitude even before learning what the discussion is about. I was seething with anger and frustration yet again.

One commenter pointed out that there is a learning disability called dyscalculia which, to oversimplify it, is the math equivalent of dyslexia. I should have acknowledged that people with learning disabilities have legitmately greater challenges. However, my larger gripe was not about people’s inabilities to do math but the glib way in which they comment about it. I suspect there would be larger awareness of dyscalculia if true disabilities weren’t casually responded to with “Yep, I’m bad at math too.”

I think a few people who read the post took a “Well, that’s easy for her to say” attitude assuming that I am one of those people who is magically good at math and could not possibly understand the plight of the less mathematically endowed. Those people would be wrong. I was bad at math too. I even openly proclaimed that fact thinking it was cute to do so.

I must admit that I was a math nerd in my early grade school years. I preferred my 5th grad math teacher’s room to recess. I even got a math trophy from a state competition. But somewhere around 8th grade math started getting harder and like many teenagers when something got harder I stopped liking it.

My high school didn’t require 4 years of math, so non-math-liking me took the opportunity to skip calculus. Why didn’t I want to take calculus? I heard it was hard.

When I went to college my advisor looked at my math score on the SAT and suggested that I test out of algrebra and take calculus instead. I politely explained that my SAT score was the result of months of preparation at a time when I was also taking a math course. At this point it had been a year and a half since I studied math, and there was no way I could successfully test out of algebra. If I did there is no way I could do well in calculus.

She begrudgingly let me enroll in algebra, and I struggled to get a C in it.

A few semesters later I remember a group of students discussing being bad at math. I chimed in with my now-hated phrase “Yeah, I’m bad at math too.” At the time I was taking statistics and my professor overheard me and basically said, “What the hell are you talking about?” I had the highest grade in his class, but as a commenter on Facebook observed, people tend to discount the math they can do as being “easy math” while disliking math based on the subjects that are difficult for them.

Years later I had to take the GMAT to get into graduate school. My decision to apply was a hasty one, so I had little time to prep for the exam. My resulting math score put me in the 68th percentile. Not great, particularly when I was applying to Carnegie Mellon, which prides itself on its emphasis on quantitative analysis.

Luckily a high verbal score made my overall GMAT result look pretty good and with the help of my other qualifications I got in the program. But then I had a problem. A lot of the quantitative course work assumed knowledge of calculus, and I still had never taken it.

I struggled. I got some failing to barely passing grades. I cried. I panicked. Then I did something I’d never really done before.

I asked for help.

I started going to office hours. I read a calculus primer online. Ultimately I found another form of math I liked (linear algebra!) and graduated with highest distinction because I’m a bad ass who worked hard not because I’m a born math genius.

A few things I hope you’ll think about:

  1. There are many types of math. Everyone is likely to find some easier than others.
  2. Needing help with math doesn’t mean you are bad at it any more than using a personal trainer means someone is a bad athelete.
  3. Not getting an A in a math class doesn’t mean you are “bad” at it. If you got a C you are at least average at math.
  4. There is a difference between admitting your weaknesses and dismissing them.
  5. Ignorance is never funny.

RELATED POST: Girls aren’t bad at math and neither are you

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