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Ada Lovelace
Science & Technology Series: Expert Comment

Getting Rid of the Fear of Maths

During City’s celebration of Ada Lovelace Day on 14th October, panellists Shirley Conran and City’s Senior Lecturer in Mathematics, Dr Olalla Castro-Alvaredo addressed the question: ‘Are Women in Britain Frightened of Maths?’
by John Stevenson (Senior Communications Officer)

Ada Lovelace Day was celebrated at City on 14th October with a provocative panel discussion titled, ‘Are Women in Britain Frightened of Maths?’

Shirley Conran and Dr Olalla Castro AlvaredoIn the world of mathematics and computer science, Ada Lovelace is regarded as the world’s first computer programmer, chiefly remembered for her work on Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine – one of the earliest mechanical general-purpose computers. Though her notes on the Analytical Engine include the first algorithm intended to be carried out by a machine, Ada’s interests in mathematics and logic were not seen as appropriate for young women during her day. Despite this, her scholarship is widely viewed as revolutionary. Ada Lovelace Day has become a global celebration of women in the intertwined fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

'Whalebone corset attitude'

City’s Ada Lovelace celebration was chaired by Professor Lis Howell, Deputy Head of City’s Department of Journalism. Shirley Conran, a novelist, journalist and creator of the e-book, ‘Money Stuff’, said there was a general fear of mathematics among girls and women in Britain. The founder of Maths Action believes that many women have been raised with a “fixed mind-set and indoctrinated that mathematics and money-making are for boys and not girls”.

Patrons attending the discussionShe attributed this to historical gender taboos - ‘the whalebone corset attitude’ - which was “widely promoted by the church and the medical profession”. The former editor on the Observer and Daily Mail newspapers mentioned that maths anxiety, “from mild apprehension to terror”, means that “too few girls study maths after their obligatory GCSE maths exam. Many girls think they can drop this ‘nasty’ subject and forget it on the day they leave school”. She called for ‘culture change’ and hailed Ada Lovelace as “creative, proactive, diligent and tenacious”. Senior Lecturer in Mathematics in the Department of Mathematics, Dr Olalla Castro-Alvaredo, was of the opinion that “too many women are afraid of mathematics and also quite a few men”.

She felt that in the absence of any evidence to suggest that girls and women lacked an innate ability to study mathematics and science, societal pressures and stereotypes were responsible for luring females away from the subject:

“Society is negatively influencing girls and women’s choices. In choosing to study mathematics and science, girls and women are often exposed to three negative stereotypes: Sexism in what is or not appropriate for a woman to do (sexism); what science and scientists are like; and, what specifically women scientists are like.”

Obsession with exams and league tables

Dr Castro-Alvaredo, who hails from Spain, was also critical of the way that mathematics is taught in Britain, which could be a contributing factor to the fear of mathematics:

“This country’s unique obsession with exams and league tables is making us teach maths in such a way that it has become no more than a series of boring recipes to solve certain types of problems.  Perhaps if high-school teachers spent less time making their students learn past Advanced Level Maths papers by heart and doing one hundred variations of exactly the same type of maths problem, they would have more time to make their subject creative and to teach their students to think for themselves. These exams and league tables do not seem to be working very well.”

Dr Castro-Alvaredo drew on the experiences of her mother to illustrate that numeracy is an essential life skill. Her mother was unable to benefit from a secondary school education, but her firm grasp of arithmetic fundamentals ably assisted her in running a household, earning a means of livelihood and successfully managing the construction of the family home.

To read Dr Olalla Castro-Alvaredo's and Shirley Conran's presentations in their entirety, please visit this weblink.

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