Being a Girl and Loving Math: Can that be a Problem?

By Björn Runow

Meet Eleonora Svanberg, who talks about her experiences of being a girl and interested in math. We hear a little about how stereotypes in society can negatively affect girls interested in math and about what we can do to help young girls keep their math dreams alive.

Photo Credit: The King's Foundation for Young Leadership

BJÖRN RUNOW: Tell us a little about yourself, the association you are active in and what you dream of becoming.

ELEONORA SVANBERG: My name is Eleonora Svanberg and I study Physics and Mathematics at Stockholm University in Sweden. Since I was little, I have found the universe interesting and after testing research, I have realized that this is how I get to explore cool things, and also get paid for it! I am currently researching mathematical astrophysics at the University of Cambridge and studying rotating disks.

Physics and math, like many other science areas, are male-dominated, something I already noticed in primary school when I was probably the only girl around me who openly liked math. So in high school, I started the non-profit association called Girls in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) which works to get more girls and non-binaries to apply to these areas. We do this mainly through three sub-activities:

• Hold activities that show how fun STEM is

• Highlight role models and discuss stereotypes

• Create a supportive network with like-minded people around the world

RUNOW: Have you always been interested in mathematics and if so, what has been the biggest challenge of growing up as a girl interested in mathematics? How was it especially in middle and high school?

SVANBERG: I have always preferred to study math over other subjects as I experienced it as less "needing to memorize things" compared to other homework I would have. It felt structured and beautiful somehow. Like learning a nice language. I have several memories from when I went to primary school and was the only girl in my class who wanted to make the challenging "problem cards" that you had to do if you had finished the chapter on time. My clearest, and most tragic, memory, however, was from a day in 3rd grade in primary school when, after school, I had run crying and locked myself in the bathroom. I thought something had gone "wrong" when I was "created", I really should have become a guy because I liked math so much. I was convinced that there had been a mistake.

Looking back on this, I do not think my reaction was strange; I only saw guys share my interests in math and playing computer. Towards middle and high school, "liking math" also began to give a stamp that you were "nerdy" and could not possibly have other interests such as makeup, clothes and dancing. It was as if certain interests were more difficult to connect with also having an interest in mathematics. It took far too long until I realized that it was precisely the typically feminine interests that clashed in the eyes of others.

Unfortunately, this is still something that can be found in many eyes, but being placed in a container so early did not feel good at all. It was as if I had to choose between losing the other interests I shared with my friends by reading about geometry in my spare time – why could I not do everything? Luckily, I had good support from my engineering parents, but without them I do not know if I would have been where I am today. It is very likely that I had seen a TikTok video saying that math in high school is so difficult and that you "commit social suicide" if you study the science program, I might not have chosen to study it.

RUNOW: Do you have any tips for elementary school teachers on what they can do to promote and develop the interest in mathematics in girls in particular?

SVANBERG: I think it's important to start talking about math early and everything that comes with it. When I taught during the year between high school and university, I thought it was clear that the math learning process is special; it feels very individual in a way. It is often clear when you make a mistake and with such strong connections to intelligence, it is easy for self-confidence to start to play a big role. Therefore, I think one should normalize it as a subject and interest, not as a natural gift. It takes time to learn, but that does not mean you should not do it. Take on math, whether you’re the best or worst at it, knowing that it is something you study. Some will spend more time than others, and some may need a different study technique.

But perhaps the most important thing is to talk about all stereotypes and fears. There are several studies that show that if girls at a young age are told that there are external factors that make you feel bad in math, the latter will find it easier to disconnect thoughts such as "I am too stupid for this". When you as a girl study an area that is already isolated from society – because of the low proportion of women active in it – being told that it is not for you, it will unfortunately be easier to let go of the math dreams when you encounter obstacles, as everyone does at some point in a learning process. Especially if there is no support from home.

Eleonora's tips about what to discuss in whole class or small groups:

  • Do you feel “not smart” when you study math?

  • How do you feel when you make a mistake in a math problem?

  • What do you think of when you hear ”mathematician”?

  • What does it mean to be "good" at math?

  • What is a "nerd"?

  • How do you think people talk about math on social media? Do you think there are any consequences of this?


Follow Eleonora on Instagram @elle.pyc to keep updated with her STEM adventures!


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