OPINION: Girls aren’t the only ones doing ‘girl math’

Intervention programs help close gender gaps in science and math fields. That can't be said of trends like "girl math," which fuel stereotypes about women's mathematical abilities. Photo courtesy of Women in Technology.

Intervention programs help close gender gaps in science and math fields. That can't be said of trends like "girl math," which fuel stereotypes about women's mathematical abilities. Photo courtesy of Women in Technology.

When I first heard the term “girl math,” I thought of Danica McKellar.

The actress, well-known to certain generations for her role as Winnie Cooper in “The Wonder Years,” is also a mathematician and an advocate of math education.

She wrote several bestselling books (”Math Doesn’t Suck” and “Kiss My Math” among them) designed to help girls excel in math and combat the stereotype that they don’t have a natural bent for the subject.

I bought one of these books, “Girls Get Curves,” to give to my daughter should her geometry skills prove comparable to mine.

I should have known better than to think that girl math, as the term is currently used, referred to something of substance.

Girl math isn’t some strategy to tackle unconscious bias. It’s a TikTok-fueled trend in which women justify their nonsense approach to personal finance.

Some examples of girl math:

  • If you buy something and return it, the money you get back is free money.
  • When you pay with cash, whatever you are buying is free.
  • Anything under $5, or discounted more than 50%, is free (and you lose money if you don’t purchase it).
  • On a night out with friends, if you charge a meal on your credit card and your friends pay you back in cash, then you’ve gained money.
  • If you spend no money one day, it’s OK to double your budget the next day.

The videos with women sharing this flawed logic are funny, and the trend seems harmless. But is it really?

Like most people, I’ve engaged in a little girl math, too.

If I buy something with a gift card, I think of it as free. But research shows most people who redeem gift cards (75%, according to one study) spend more than the value of the card.

Back in the days when I wrote about fashion, I was a proponent of the cost-per-wear analysis, which justifies spending more money on clothing you will wear more often. But this really only makes sense when applied to durable items like shoes and coats.

I can’t say I entirely object to girl math, but I do object to the terminology. Let’s not pretend females are the only ones compartmentalizing how they spend their money. At the moment in America, everyone else is doing that as well.

I once knew a man who struggled to pay rent, but managed to shell out money for minoxidil. Risking homelessness instead of baldness feels very much like it involves creative math to me, but I don’t see that going viral.

Consumers, regardless of gender, are spending money, despite the double-digit inflation that plagued us in 2022. Real personal spending, adjusted for inflation, hit a new high in June, according to data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Girls definitely aren’t the only ones who are spending money, but they are the only ones making fun of the ways they rationalize that spending.

When you throw girl math in the mix with all the other ways in which women’s mathematical and financial abilities are discounted or ridiculed, it doesn’t feel as funny.

A 2020 study revealed that a surprisingly large number of low-achieving men major in math and science fields in college compared to women. The same can’t be said for low-achieving or average women. Interventions to close gender gaps in those fields do attract high-achieving women.

“When female students struggle with math, the implicit biases surrounding them from different sources in and out of the classroom may signal to them that they do not have that ability,” wrote Yasemin Copur-Gencturk, assistant professor of education at the USC Rossier School of Education, in 2021.

Men who are middling in math still feel confident enough to pursue math careers because they’ve never been led to believe they should feel otherwise.

In McKellar’s books, some of the most enlightening information came from real girls who used real math to propel their careers. Several of them shared stories about their younger years, when they sabotaged themselves in math in order to seem cool ― and normal. After all, girls weren’t supposed to be good at math. But when the girls realized that strategy didn’t work, they got serious about studying.

I don’t think a TikTok trend is going to change the trajectory of women in math-related careers or fields of study. But we should consider how certain stereotypes about women and math, even those shared in jest, can influence our beliefs.

Girl math is good for a laugh, as long as we know where the joke ends and the self-sabotage begins.

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.