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Oct. 19, 1997

Girls Need Math

The other day a programmer-friend sent an e-mail to me and three other women. It read:

"Hey, I have a favor to ask of you Silicon Valley women types. My 14-year-old sister Lila is taking this networking/C++ (computer programming) class at her high school. Pretty heady stuff for a freshman. . . . She sent me this desperate e-mail today (see below) and I'm trying to encourage her to stick with it. It bugs me that my little sister is starting to buy into the whole 'girls are dumber than boys' BS.

"I already sent her a big motivational e-mail, but it would be more genuine if it came from people who are proving that women can do this stuff. She just started and it is way too early to let the boys have their little class without her. A short note of encouragement would make a world of difference right now. And I'd be eternally grateful."

Lila had written him: "I'm the most illiterate one there. Plus, I'm the only freshman, AND the only girl out of like 15. And so far I've followed up on the statement that guys are smarter than girls. I feel like an utter moron in there."

I wrote to Lila, and want to share a more general version of that note. Because she stuck with the class and is now doing smashing, I hope printing this letter helps others like her.

Hi Lila,

I know you really don't believe that boys are smarter than girls, but your older brother was worried that maybe you did, so he asked me to write to you and assure you it's not true. It's not!

Sometimes I was the only girl - and the youngest person - in my math classes, but I'm telling you that all learning is hard, especially when it requires thinking rather than rote memorization. So, if you think it is a challenge at first, the guys in there probably do, too. One minute it will all click, like it always has for you before, and - aha! - it makes sense! Math often works that way - it gives click-rewards that feel incredibly cool.

I wouldn't write this if I couldn't relate. When I took engineering calculus in college, I felt so much like you. Everyone but me, it seemed, had taken it in high school. I was clueless. I wanted to quit, but instead I played ultimate nerd - asked the professor questions after class and cracked the books hard. By the end of the semester, the guys were asking me for help with problem sets and by my sophomore year I was tutoring the frosh. Later, when I applied to law school, my calc prof wrote me a letter of recommendation (yes, I got in).

In law school I became an editor of the competitive academic journal and the most ironic thing happened - the same guys who were supposedly the ones better at math suddenly acted like they were also better at writing.

Why does this happen? When some people feel threatened they grow insecure and reach for anything to convince themselves they are better than others. Some guys do that when it comes to math and computers (and writing). But in the end, the people who succeed are almost always those who work the hardest and do the best work. Look at how much you've done already in your short life. Give yourself a chance and you will be able to do almost anything you set out to do.

Why do we girls give ourselves too little credit? Is it because of what we see on TV? It's not very often that we see Pam Anderson or Jenny McCarthy doing much other than strutting, giggling, or bouncing. From "Leave it to Beaver" and the "Brady Bunch" to "Men Behaving Badly" and "Friends," we rarely see girls and women in roles other than wives, girlfriends, teachers or prostitutes.

TV is called the "boob tube" for a reason. It may reflect somebody's fantasy world, but not mine: I'm more interested in the cathode technology than mindless stories.

That is why I have always liked math. Unlike false TV stereotypes, math is reasonable, honest, predictable and true. Girls need math, I always thought, because it is the only class that makes any sense, where results can be traced to their beginnings, and memorizing usually comes second to thinking. Other classes are OK, but only math gives you that payoff - and with programming and science it becomes a tool to make cool things that work.

Math can also get you a good job, one where you can think all day, solve problems and build things. And, these "math jobs" pay well. Programmers usually get paid more than graphic artists; architects tend to earn more than interior designers; doctors make much more than nurses. This may not be fair, and making money isn't everything, but this is the system and women aren't getting their fair share. Let's change that.

A few of my girlfriends don't see it this way. They don't dream big. They assume that if they try, they will fail. They avoid classes and jobs that are "out of their league." They sometimes even act as if competing with others is bad.

Baloney! Boys compete. They take the "hard" classes. They even apply for jobs they shouldn't - and sometimes they fail. But often they succeed. These boys are no better; these girls are no worse - the difference is ambition, courage and hard work.

Most women I know are strangers to old-fashioned stereotypes - they are strong, logical and smart; they work (and play) hard; they take risks. They may like to look good, but are not fashion-obsessed; they like to create in colors other than pink. These girls are often called "exceptions," but they are the "rule." And they like to be treated as the smart, competent people they are.

That's why it comes back to math. Math has no bias. It doesn't come from TV. It doesn't know what you're wearing. Math treats all people equally. Especially when you're in a hard class with all boys, when nobody's cheering you on from the sidelines, when it's not "cool" to be smart, math is a nice thing to have. When nothing else makes sense, math reaches an answer.

It's not the gender of the brain, it's how much it is exercised. So go exercise yours, and tell those boys to kiss off. Your brother is rooting for you, Lila, and so am I.



Rebecca L. Eisenberg is a San Francisco writer who lives at