“Girl Math”: a barrier to Feminism? 


In 2023, Claudia Goldin became the third woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences and the first to ever win it on an individual basis. Her paper, ‘Why Woman Won’, explores the process by which women began to obtain legal and economic rights in the US after gaining the right to vote. Goldin explores how financial freedom and equality provide women with their own tools to create a society in which they can be financially independent from men. Indeed, it was only until 1975 in Women the UK that women could open their own bank account or a line of credit. Women, however, are still seen as riskier investments by banks. So why then, in the same year as Claudia Goldin’s Nobel win, did the social media trend “Girl Math” appear, where women perpetuate the stereotype that they cannot manage their own finances?

For those unfamiliar with the trend, Tori Dunlap — founder and CEO of platform Her First 100k — described the trend to The Independent as “the mental gymnastics women do to justify purchases”. Examples of the trend from TikTok include,  “If I buy a dress for £50 and then return in and purchase a dress for £100 then the second dress is £50” or “paying in cash means its virtually free”. Whilst everyone makes erratic and impulsive financial decisions — its long been acknowledged that Adam Smith’s “Rational Economic Man” does not exist — are women, in labelling their poor financial choices “Girl math”, propagating the same stereotype that kept woman from achieving financial independence?

Are women, in labelling their poor financial decisions ‘girl math’, propagating a stereotype?

Women’s lack of confidence in their mathematical ability is often cited in the attempt to explain why  women are less likely to progress into a STEM field, with many young women claiming less confidence in the subjects at young ages. The education charity Teach First found 54% of girls between 11 and 16 lacked confidence in maths, compared to 41% of boys. Dr Laura Currie, an Assistant Professor of Applied Mathematics here at Durham, had concerns about labelling illogical maths “Girl Maths”: ‘While for some, the trend of girl maths may be seen as a light-hearted and ironic response to gender stereotypes, the concern is that it could be counterproductive to the ongoing efforts of many to encourage more girls to study STEM subjects.’

Many women however have come forward in defence of the trend, arguing women are allowed to poke fun at their own finances. In an interview with The Guardian, Maddy Mitchell, a content creator, argued how “Women are celebrating things that bring them together, which is so cool, but of course it’s going to be devalued by many other people out there. That’s what it means to be a woman, unfortunately.” She added, “people are blowing it out of proportion” and are “flipping the narrative to make it seem like girls are dumb”. Is the narrative really being flipped however, or are women merely taking the points that have long been used to keep them in financial captivity at face value?

54% of girls between 11 and 16 lacked confidence in maths

Professor Tatiana Damjanovic, a Macroeconomist at Durham’s department of Economics, had a novel take on the Girl Math trend. Regarding her education in the USSR, she explains that the majority of the mathematics and physics students in non-Moscow universities were women, as were the teachers of STEM subjects in secondary schools. She was not exposed to the notion that mathematics was a male subject. In Soviet culture, where only three female ministers have ever existed in 74 years, girls nevertheless actively participated in math challenges. 

Having not seen the trend before, she did have this to say: ‘Girl Math does not offend me, I also do not think that it could make girls less confident. It can actually make them to rebel and show the world what they are capable of.’ She goes on to argue, that this stereotype and gender gap is more perpetuated by poor representation amongst important economic policy makers than a TikTok trend: ‘In my opinion, Liz Truce’s Mini Budget have created more harm than “Girl math”.’ She also advocates for a cultural shift; that if there were more movies about successful female economists about, say, Carmen Reinhart or Janet Yellen for example, it could be the catalyst for women to aspire a for a future career in the field. Ultimately, she argues “girl math” itself is a very old idea.

As a woman, I cannot help but feel that a trend in which women poke fun of their own financial management undermines our own confidence in the Mathematical Sciences. However, the trend is of little significance in the shadow of structural barriers themselves. Indeed, Damjanovic is right: if there were more of us in the field, then we would start to see this stereotype and confidence gap diminish. 

Image Credit: Public Domain

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