Written by Hannah Fry

In The News

A numbers game

Girls are bad at maths. But are they though? Really? Mathematician Hannah Fry knows otherwise.

teaching maths to girls

Illustration by Claire Jones.

It’s a familiar feeling for many people. A cold sense of panic that descends whenever they face a tricky maths problem: a gripping fear of failure that hits before even attempting a solution.

The terror is not easy to dismiss. And there’s a reason: tricky maths problems can trigger the same parts of your brain as if you were actually suffering bodily harm. For anyone with maths anxiety, the threat is very real indeed.

This anxiety – and its effect on girls in maths – is the subject of a new report, ‘The Fear Factor’, commissioned by Maths Action and written by Dr Samantha Callan.

The report aims to address why so many young girls struggle with the confidence needed to pursue mathematics. And struggle they do. Girls only make up around 40 per cent of A-level entries for mathematics, which drops to 28 per cent for further maths A-level, and the numbers continue to decrease through undergraduate and beyond.

Callan points out that the gender gap is certainly not caused by a difference in innate ability. Several studies have found no difference in male and female aptitude for the subject. Indeed, some East Asian countries’ girls repeatedly outperform British boys by the equivalent of several school years in standardised tests.

It’s also not just girls without the mathematical skills who are dropping out of the subject: 80 per cent of girls who achieve an A* at GCSE will not carry on with maths to A-level.

Instead, as Callan’s study reports, the issue is one of a lack of self-efficacy.

Self-efficacy is subtly different from self-confidence. Rather than a general belief about your abilities, self-efficacy can be measured. It is defined by how likely you think you are to succeed in a particular task, a value which can then be tested against ability.

Self-efficacy has an enormous impact on performance. In tests across 34 countries, self-efficacy alone can mean the difference of up to 49 score points in mathematics and 37 points in science – the equivalent of an entire year’s worth of schooling.

“Tricky maths problems can trigger the same parts of your brain as if you were actually suffering bodily harm. For anyone with maths anxiety, the threat is very real indeed.”

For girls in the UK in particular, it’s their sense of terror that’s preventing them from being able to tackle tricky maths problems, not their lack of mathematical ability itself.

This is best illustrated by a comment from one of the report’s case studies, a female trainee lawyer with an A for maths at GCSE, about her reaction when confronted with a page of numbers: “I have to remind myself, ‘I can do this.’”

This echoes my experience teaching mathematics to undergraduate students. The girls don’t lack the ability, but need a lot more support to overcome their confidence issues than the boys.

But why do girls seem to doubt themselves so much?

Callan’s report suggests that a reason for this may be our cultural tendency to view maths as a male subject – with the result that girls have been socialised to think of themselves as mathematically incompetent.

This is certainly something that I have noticed in my years of teaching mathematics to undergraduate students.

Callan goes further in interpreting the cultural issues, suggesting that a belief that “some man will take care of the details of money and investing” is holding back our girls from taking an interest in mathematics.

Personally, I struggle to identify with these elements of the report, but it’s difficult to disagree with its conclusions: that a cultural shift in attitudes would be positive for British girls.

There is, however, another important point that the report misses.

If self-efficacy is such a major issue with such measurable consequences, but can be rectified by providing the right encouragement, then we need to rethink our support structures within the education system and help provide girls with the confidence they need to succeed at their best.


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Written by Hannah Fry

Dr Hannah Fry is a lecturer in the Mathematics of Cities at the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at UCL and author of The Mathematics of Love: Patterns, Proofs, and the Search for the Ultimate Equation (Ted Books).