Math isn’t hard; it’s just boring

Babs may have been on to something: It's not that girls can't do math--they just don't want to.
Babs may have been on to something: It's not that girls can't do math--they just don't want to.Courtesy CherrySoda!

Remember a few years ago, when Mattell got in trouble because a talking Barbie said Math is hard? Reinforced negative sterotypes. And then, a few years later, Harvard president Larry Summers noticed that there were more men than women in advanced mathematics, and speculated on a number of reasons, including culture and genetics. He got in trouble, too.

Well, a new study shows that a large part of a reason there are so few women pursuing careers in mathematics is because … they don’t want to. Given the choice, most girls choose not to pursue math. Not because it’s hard. Not because they can’t do the work. Just because they don’t want to.

This, in an odd way, feeds into our earlier conversation about the relative happiness of liberals vs. conservatives. Most conservatives value free markets, where millions of individuals make their own choices. Conservatives of a libertarian stripe place great emphasis on individual autonomy and responsibility. Liberals (not all, but many) have a tendency to see societal forces having a greater impact on human behavior, oftentimes determining it. Thus the impulse to place society under central control.

Here’s an example of a case where the “social forces” explanation for why girls don’t pursue math (“they are discriminated against!” “society teaches them not to!”) is outweighed by the “individual autonomy” explanation (“I don’t wanna—I think it’s boring”).

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Thor's picture
Thor says:

I always thought boys were more into math because we were constantly figuring out our batting averages in Little League.

posted on Wed, 05/28/2008 - 1:45pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

That's what I tell everybody! ;-) I'm a whiz at spreadsheets, precisely because I (mis)spent my childhood memorizing the backs of baseball cards.

posted on Wed, 05/28/2008 - 4:20pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

its not math ur using ur using something else besides math

posted on Fri, 02/26/2010 - 2:24pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

Batting averages equals hits divided by at bats. Sounds pretty math-y to me...

posted on Sun, 03/07/2010 - 9:09pm
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

But why do boys not find math boring? Or do they find it as boring, but see other reasons to continue studying it?

If it's a choice, why do girls choose one way and boys another? Any thoughts?

posted on Wed, 05/28/2008 - 1:50pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

Gene likes to get me all fired up. And I rise to the bait every time. ;)

Sure, lots of women think math is boring. Lots of men think math is boring, too. My hackles always go up whenever anyone talks about "men" or "women" as homogenous groups that all want or enjoy the same things. Remember, there are more differences within groups than there are between them.

I'll be honest: I didn't really enjoy math in high school or college, even though the puzzle solving aspect is deeply satisfying to me. But there was no question about whether or not I was going to take math every year in high school, and that I would make it through at least AB Calculus. There were not many girls in those higher level classes; I wonder if other parents just caved to their kids' whining about how "math is boring" and "I don't wanna"? The sad part about that is that kids that aren't prepared in high school are certainly not going to do math in college, and that closes a lot of doors, interest or no.

Midmorning did a show last week about why women drop out of math and science careers. Sounds like a lot of women don't reach the top levels in those careers because work pressure and need for commitment ramp up right at the same time that home pressures do. And you know what? Women in those career fields are STILL reporting harassment and bullying that's shocking to hear about.

posted on Wed, 05/28/2008 - 2:10pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

I agree everything all Liza says. Well, here, anyway. ;-) In fact, this was pretty much Larry Summers' point. There are many women who, individually, are excellent at math. However, women as a whole are underrepresented in math careers, are rare in the highest echelons of math whizzes, don't do as well on standardized tests, etc. A number of reasons have been proposed to explain this; the most recent argues that it is due in large part to individual choice.

Why is this important? Because, if you believe that the scarcity of women in advanced math, or in math careers in general, is a problem, then you are going to want to know the source of the problem in order to craft an effective solution. If the problem is sexism or discrimination, then that requires one kind of solution. If the source is genetic, it requires a different approach. If the source is individual choice, it requires yet another approach.

Applying a "sex discrimination" solution to a "genetics" or "individual choice" problem will not solve anything -- it will only make things worse.

That said, the scarcity of women mathematicians is probably the result of many factors, and will require many responses -- each in an appropriate proportion.

posted on Thu, 05/29/2008 - 12:26pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

Yes, truly.

As I've said before in other forums on Buzz, the part that puts me off is that some people read this and say, well, if girls don't WANT to do math, then maybe we shouldn't do any looking at why they're not represented in the higher levels of math and engineering careers. Maybe we shouldn't make sure that there are female mentors, professors, and other role models. Heck, maybe we shouldn't even make sure that the doors to academic programs in math and science are open to everyone with an interest and aptitude. Maybe it's OK to go back to the days of the old boys' club.

(Now, Gene, I'm not saying that's YOU.)

In sort of a parallel discussion, the New York Times ran a story two weeks ago called "The Uneven Playing Field," about girls' athletics and the high rate of injuries observed. The article got 289 comments, and a frightening number of them say things along the lines of, "See, we should just repeal Title IX, give the money to boys' sports teams, and send the girls back to home ec where they belong. Their bodies are proof they can't hack it."

Opportunities should be open to everyone, regardless of statistics about aptitude of any one group or another.

That's my story, and I'm sticking to it!

posted on Thu, 05/29/2008 - 12:50pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

And there's the rub. When statistics show a disparity, there are some people who automatically assume it must be due to some nefarious reason, and insist on some heavy-handed response.

(I'm not saying this is YOU, Liza.)

Title IX is a case in point. It is supposed to open equal opportunity for men and women -- an excellent thing. But the courts have confused equal opportunity with equal results. They see more money being spent on men's athletics than on women's athletics. And so, to balance the scales... they cut the men's programs.

And now there is an effort to apply Title IX to math and science. This would likely have the same results as affirmative action has had on college admissions. In both cases, a system is designed to help underrepresented groups by supporting the promotion of less-qualified individuals over better-qualified individuals. This ends up hurting the better-qualified (because they didn't get the job), the less-qualified (because they are in over their heads), and the system as a whole (because they have to do their work without benefit of the best possible staff). This is awful in higher education; it would be downright disastrous in advanced math and science.

My sister is an engineer -- trust me, I have nothing against women scientists. But if any area of human endeavor demands to be a pure meritocracy, science is it.

posted on Thu, 05/29/2008 - 1:25pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

I'm no conspiracy theorist. :)

Re: Title IX, I don't expect to see equal results. But if there's only so much money to go around--and isn't that always the case?--girls should get a cut of that money. Sorry. I really do think that's true. Do I think that means that there shouldn't be men's football teams if there aren't also teams for women? No. There should be reasonable compromise on both sides. That's what living in a civil society is all about.

And I believe in a meritocracy. But I don't think the fact that some professions or disciplines are male-dominated means that an atmosphere hostile to women (or any minority, for that matter) should be tolerated.

posted on Thu, 05/29/2008 - 2:34pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

This is a good page

posted on Fri, 08/15/2008 - 7:34pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

OK, so this isn't about math. It's about girls' sports. But this was an obvious place to put it. Scientists at the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research say that cheerleading is now the most dangerous sport of all for women in high school and college. A whopping 65% of all severe sports injuries sustained from 1982 to 2007 were related to cheerleading!

Give me a bike or a soccer ball any day.

posted on Wed, 08/13/2008 - 9:14am
Gene's picture
Gene says:

There's more math here than you might think! This study may be an example of sampling bias. The article doesn't say what percentage of female athletes are cheerleaders. Without that information, we cannot interpret this statistic.

One of three conditions will hold:

  1. If 65% of female athletes are cheerleaders, then cheerleaders suffering 65% of catastrophic accidents is not surprising.
  2. If lots of female athletes are cheerleaders -- say, 85% -- then their accounting for only 65% of accidents would actually make cheerleading a relatively safe sport.
  3. OTOH, if few female athletes are cheerleaders -- say, 45% -- then the fact that they account for 65% of injuries is indeed something to worry about.

Until we know what percentage of athletes are cheerleaders, then we really can't say very much.

posted on Fri, 08/15/2008 - 3:49pm
mdr's picture
mdr says:

My niece was known as "Math Girl" on her school's Quiz Bowl team. And Marquette University told her she had the highest math score ever on the school's admission test (I may have some the details of this messed up--but at any rate she was a math wiz.) She chose Macalester instead and got a degree in social studies. Maybe math wasn't challenging enough for her. I'll ask her next time I see her.

posted on Wed, 05/28/2008 - 3:34pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

i don't think math is easily translatable into what many consider "meaningful" work. not at first glance, anyway. I could have pursued math in my undergrad days and done quite well, but i chose otherwise. I was turned off by the sterile, dry atmosphere of mathematics.

posted on Fri, 05/30/2008 - 4:14pm
Promise Fellow's picture
Promise Fellow says:

I attatch my interest in math with the fact that I was a shy child. Instead of engaging in conversations with other kids I was playing with puzzles, building with Lego's, and making mazes on large sheets of graph paper my dad gave me. I didn't do so well in english... all those different terms: prepositions, participles, predicates, transitive/intransitive verbs, etc. I was always an excellent student when it came to math (ie. the only freshman in a junior/senior level undergraduate business calculus course). I still question my english aptitude when writing for newsletters, reports, and other important papers... even this post.

posted on Thu, 05/29/2008 - 11:38am
carrisa's picture
carrisa says:

I LOVE MATH!!!!! it is soooooooooo easy!! don't u agree?

posted on Thu, 05/29/2008 - 11:42am
Gene's picture
Gene says:

Here's another article on efforts to apply Title IX to math and science -- and the dangers of doing so.

Again, there is nothing wrong with creating equal opportunity. But there's a LOT wrong with forcing equal results. Far be it from me to quote Kurt Vonnegut approvingly (VERY far be it), but we may be heading toward the world he described in Harrison Bergeron.

posted on Fri, 05/30/2008 - 9:41am
Liza's picture
Liza says:

Just to be clear: I wasn't advocating the application of Title IX to math and science. I brought it up mostly because I was thinking of the comments, and how lots of people use statements like, "On average, men are better systematizers" to rationalize their bias against women in certain fields. Equal opportunity is what I'm after. And I'm fine if there are fewer women in certain fields because they just aren't interested. But until it's a given that workplaces will be accepting and pay will be equal, I don't think we can attribute all of the disparity to lack of interest.

One more thing: some people are willing to force a confrontation, but lots of others aren't. If women are finding themselves in situations that seem hostile or just unpleasant for some reason, but they're highly qualified with other options open to them, I'm sure lots of people just move on. And then they say things like, "Oh, it just wasn't for me" or "I found a better opportunity." And they're not wrong. But it doesn't mean that they weren't initially drawn to math, IT, or engineering, and it doesn't mean that it's OK that many women who stay continue to report hostile working conditions or unequal pay.

posted on Fri, 05/30/2008 - 9:58am
Gene's picture
Gene says:

I understand, and agree completely. It's just that once Title IX rears its head, I feel it's important to consider the possible consequences.

OK, Nessie is telling me I should just nod my head and move on, so that's what I'm going to do...

posted on Fri, 05/30/2008 - 10:47am
Gene's picture
Gene says:

You're absolutely right. A couple of quotes from the article itself.

It's important to note that these findings involve averages and do not apply to all women or men; indeed, there is wide variety within each gender. The researchers are not suggesting that sexism and cultural pressures on women don't play a role, and they don't yet know why women choose the way they do.

. . .

A few years ago, Joshua Rosenbloom, an economist at the University of Kansas, became intrigued by a new campaign by the National Science Foundation to root out what it saw as pervasive gender discrimination in science and engineering. ... Rosenbloom had no quarrel with the goal of gender equity. But as he saw it, the federal government was spending all that money without any idea what would work, because there was no solid data on what caused the disparity between men and women in scientific fields.

posted on Sat, 05/31/2008 - 8:04pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

well, i think that it is horrible that anybody would do that.

posted on Fri, 05/30/2008 - 1:38pm
DO's picture
DO says:

"They make a choice" is not an explanation, it's an observation. One needs to know hwhy a choice is made. Psychology and culture/behavior are a range of possible explanations. Those of us in the social sciences are scientists too and our subjects are harder to study than natural objects.

posted on Fri, 05/30/2008 - 3:19pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

While the article acknowledges we do not fully understand why people make the choices they do, the evidence is pointing pretty strongly toward personal preference:

The lower numbers of women in IT careers weren't explained by work-family pressures, since the study found computer careers made no greater time demands than those in the control group. Ability wasn't the reason, since the women in both groups had substantial math backgrounds. There was, however, a significant difference in one area: what the men and women valued in their work.

Rosenbloom and his colleagues used a standard personality-inventory test to measure people's preferences for different kinds of work. In general, Rosenbloom's study found, men and women who enjoyed the explicit manipulation of tools or machines were more likely to choose IT careers - and it was mostly men who scored high in this area. Meanwhile, people who enjoyed working with others were less likely to choose IT careers. Women, on average, were more likely to score high in this arena.

Personal preference, Rosenbloom and his group concluded, was the single largest determinative factor in whether women went into IT. They calculated that preference accounted for about two-thirds of the gender imbalance in the field. The study was published in November in the Journal of Economic Psychology.

posted on Sat, 05/31/2008 - 8:08pm
Mary Wolstoncraft's picture
Mary Wolstoncraft says:

The idea that the failure of women to compete in high mathematics stems from their own boredom with the subject and not resultant of some outside force or sumation of forces is absurd. to say that women find math boring is akin to saying that women are bored more easily and thus have a sorter attention span than men. In no way does this devolve into a politcal issue of personal lazyness on the part of women. It is merly a symtom of a greater problem hindering the achivements of women in today's society; Scientific leanings aren't seen as an atractive trait in women. Little boys like dinosaurs because they are given toys depicting such. Likewise, girls are exposed to playthings that represent utility and maternity. Where young boys get to play cowboy and astronaught, girls pretend to fix diner or feed a child. The problem is that women have the mundane and time consuming occupations of mother and homemaker engrained into them almost from birth. Thus they are never habbituated to the persuet of higher thought in early childhood, and are therefore at a loss when face with situations that require creative thinking and problem-solving.
The only remedy for this gross abandon of halve the population to intelectual lazyness is pfor the parents of today to promote creativity and inovation in girl as much if not more than inboys. Besides, Astronauts are cool.

posted on Mon, 06/30/2008 - 4:52pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

There are many factors influencing the distribution of careers. However, the societal pressures you cite seem to be a minor factor. According to the study, personal preference accounts for 2/3rds of the difference. Social pressures are one of many factors making up the remaining 1/3rd.

posted on Tue, 07/01/2008 - 1:55pm
Me Of Course's picture
Me Of Course says:

Maybe it's all this "higher" and "lower" connotations applied to the roles of men and women...or society established roles that makes it seem negative that less women pursue math-related careers(if not negative, it makes it seem like a "problem" that needsto be looked into/fixed).

Yes, sadly but true, society does repeatedly show women their espected role of mother/wife...etc, but how is that lower that being a mathmatician? ask a mathmatician to be a mother/housewife...etc and i'm pretty sure they will not succeed so well.

It's just skills, different skills that appear in different people, not necessarily gender-related sometimes. And this whole idea that girls don't pursue math just because "it's boring" and "they just don't want to"...kind of helps add to promotion of gender separation. actually the whole line just sucks...catches attention of readers, but totally fails as factual info.

posted on Thu, 07/24/2008 - 10:14pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

The authors of the study would argue that the information is factual enough.

I see it as striking a blow for human liberty and individual freedom. Girls are not going into math careers, not because of some genetic difference, not because of societal pressure, but simply because they, as individuals, decided they'd rather do something else. Hooray for them!

posted on Mon, 07/28/2008 - 4:04pm
comet the boy's picture
comet the boy says:

well, i hate math.. and thats all i have to say

posted on Fri, 08/15/2008 - 6:41pm
LS's picture
LS says:

Getting a good High School & College Education is VERY important later in life. Even though people think School and or Math are hard and what not but it i'll pay off so keep trying!!!

posted on Fri, 08/15/2008 - 7:27pm
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

Check it out: More on girls and math.

The journal Notices of the American Mathematical Society just published a report on how girls are discouraged from pursuing math by a culture (ours) that undervalues it, and pressures them in other directions.

Although... While the title of the article I linked to above is "US culture derails girl math whizzes," it looks like the actual report put a lot of focus on how US culture derails girl and boy math whizzes (but more so for girls, maybe).

posted on Fri, 10/10/2008 - 2:58pm
jimh's picture
jimh says:

The actor who played Winnie on the Wonder Years TV series, Danica McKellar, graduated summa cum laude from UCLA with a math major. She has written two popular books to encourage middle school girls to do math:

Math Doesn't Suck; How to Survive Middle School Math Without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail

Kiss My Math; Showing Pre-Algebra Who's Boss

I haven't read either one yet, but there are many glowing customer reviews at

posted on Fri, 10/10/2008 - 3:28pm
DO's picture
DO says:

Attention Gene: considering a subject boring could be as much a result of societal training/cultural pressures, that is to say a learned behavior, as "personal preference". Once again, social science strikes back at physical scientists who get out of their depth!

posted on Fri, 10/10/2008 - 3:38pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

So, free will and personal choice are simply illusions? We are merely automatons, responding to external stimuli without any individual agency?

Good to know...

posted on Wed, 10/15/2008 - 8:21am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

math is fun it isnt boring you lazy bones get studying so you wont have trouble

posted on Fri, 02/26/2010 - 2:18pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

What one finds boring and what one finds fun are - I suspect - very strongly correlated with one is bad or good at.

In that sense, it is hard to see which way the causation goes. Is math boring because it is hard? - or is it hard because it is boring and one does not take the time to learn it?

As a mathematican I certainly does not think math is boring. I look upon theorems, their proofs, the apparent paradoxes and pathological phenomena of Mathematics in the same way an astronomers and physicist look upon the awesome stars and galaxies through the lenses of general relativity and quantum mechanics. When you take your time with it, doing mathematics is a truly delightful activity. It is actually saddening that most people never experiences these feelings.

posted on Thu, 11/11/2010 - 3:50am
George D  's picture
George D says:

I'm a guy (used to be a boy, I guess) and was turned off to math early and often. I barely made it through algebra and failed geometry. I saw absolutely no point to school mathematics and turned off--refusing to do the work and pursuing other interests.

So it's not the case that just girls refuse to do mathematics. Many boys/males are turned off by mathematics and also decline to do continue the subject. They reject "persisting" in the subject.

So we should not have "mathematics for all" because some of us don't wan't to be included in "all."

Ta Ta.

posted on Thu, 06/12/2014 - 5:09pm

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