Apparently, girls can’t do maths. No one told me this when I was six years old so I was blissfully unaware of the fact as I worked through the sums in the little exercise booklets my teacher gave me. I was, however, very aware of the fact that I couldn’t do ballet.
I went to a little village school that gave ballet lessons once a week for the girls. We went off to the hall, dressed in little pink leotards and skirts, with our little pink slippers on, and twirled to music. The other girls twirled. I clomped.
I hated every minute of it, feeling clumsy, chunky and as graceful as a drunk hippo.
While I was stamping around the hall in my pink ballet shoes, the boys were back in the classroom doing other work. At the time, it happened to be maths. I talked to my mum and told her how much I hated ballet. She in turn wrote a letter to the school, explaining that I would rather do maths with the boys.
At the age of six, I didn’t know that there was something odd in wanting to be in a class with only boys, or in wanting to do maths. It was with some pride that I talked to someone recently and learned that the ballet lessons in that school are now optional for both sexes. In my own way, I was a pioneer of equal opportunities. All I knew at the time was that I could get the numbers in my maths exercise books to do what they were supposed to, which I could never do with my pink-slippered feet. Ballet was bad, but maths was good.
When I was seven years old, no one told me that girls couldn’t do maths. We had to take SAT tests. I sat at my desk along with the others in my class and was given a maths test, which I went through. I don’t really remember much about it now. I don’t remember much about the next test either, where a handful of us stayed in the classroom to do another set of questions. I do remember the third test, when I sat in the classroom all alone apart from my teacher, trying to work my way through a sheet of impossible questions. If I recall, the questions were themed around fairs, which seems horrendously unfair to ask a little girl sat alone in a classroom with her test of horribly difficult questions. That’s just rubbing candyfloss in the wound.
I think I cried. Up until then, I’d thought I was good at maths. Then I tried those questions and knew I wasn’t because I couldn’t do any of them. It took a long time for my teacher to make me understand that they’d given me the really difficult test because I was good at maths.
I went into an all-girl school shortly after that and, when I was in my early teens, every girl in the school sat the Maths Challenge. Still no one told me that girls couldn’t do maths, so I went ahead and did it. I got into the Junior Mathematical Olympiad, which about 1200 pupils in the country get into. This meant I had extra maths lessons sitting in the library at lunchtimes with my teacher and yet another test (why is it that the reward for doing well in a test is another test?). Still, no one told me that girls couldn’t do maths.
No one told me a little later either, when I was choosing subjects for my A-levels. I was still at the all-girl school, so the little cluster of us signed up for Maths and Further Maths was made up of eight girls. Clearly no one had warned them either that girls couldn’t do maths.
I only found out later that girls couldn’t do maths, when I already had my two maths A-levels and an acceptance to study for a Masters of Mathematics in Maths and Computer Science. I found out when I discovered that I was one of only three girls on my course. Of course, I was told, there was such a skewed ratio of boys to girls. It was because I’d applied to study maths and computing and everyone knows that girls don’t do maths.
Maybe if someone had told me that when I was six years old, I’d have stuck with the pink slippers.
Maybe some of those girls who are told that girls can’t do maths would discover something very different if they could be gifted the same ignorance I was.
Jessica Meats is a professional geek. She works for Microsoft as a technology strategist and writes science fiction novels. Her first novel, Child of the Hive, is an adventure featuring a group of mathematicians and computer programmers. Find out more about her books and writing at Plot Twister.