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Why talented girls abandon their math skills as “irrelevant”


Ulviyya Ibrahimli, quantitative consultant at a German d-fine GmbH in Dusseldorf.


ULVIYYA, DO YOU AGREE WITH AN IDEA THAT BOYS ARE BETTER IN MATH THAN GIRLS?

I am absolutely against stereotypes and therefore do not share the idea that boys are better in math than girls. Analytical thinking, liking numbers and problem solving is a preference that is not gender related. Unfortunately, most of us are exposed to gender based stereotypes from a very early age, which, in most cases, leads us to accept them without questioning. Especially when the adults with whom we are communicating the most and look up to, share this kind of ideology, our belief system builds its foundation on these stereotypes.

Mathematics is all about abstraction, curiosity and dwelling deep into problems, which both boys and girls can enjoy and succeed with enough passion and patience.

TYPICALLY, IN PRESCHOOL AND ELEMENTARY SCHOOL, BOYS AND GIRLS PERFORM SIMILARLY ON MATH TESTS. WHAT ABOUT THE HIGH SCHOOL AND COLLEGE? ANY DIFFERENCES START TO EMERGE?

My schooling was mostly done in Azerbaijan and I can express my opinions based on my personal experience.

I believe that kids tend to perform better on subjects that they genuinely enjoy.

In preschool and elementary schools there is no hard pressure to make choices and prioritise subjects. Therefore, those who love problem solving, playing with numbers and so on, show better results. However, starting from the high school, people put more effort on subjects that are relevant to their future career, rather than the subjects they like. Often career decisions are influenced by external factors such as practicality, family opinion, income and stability, and based on this developments most girls tend to stay away from science.

In high school I observed how many talented girls who were top of the class in math and participating in olympiads, simply abandoned their math skills as “irrelevant” to their future career choice.

Of course this impacts their performance in math tests.


WHAT CAN BE DONE TO GET GIRLS EXCITED ABOUT MATH? WHAT WAS YOUR MOTIVATION?

I think this is related to the belief that “boys are better in math than girls”. Attitude towards any discipline is associated with your experience. No doubt, there are ups and downs, but it is how you react to them forms your attitude.


If you fail a math test, you might explain it with not enough devotion to your studies or lack of skills. Then, you keep hearing that “boys are better in math than girls”, most of the mathematicians are male, people you know personally in this field are male, and you do not find a woman role model to contradict these stereotypes. As a result, you most probably blame gender differences and question your competence and skills.


I believe that by breaking gender stereotypes and convincing girls from an early age that they can gain great achievements and not only in math, could create a natural excitement and encourage more girls pursue their love to this field.

Also stopping to influence their education and career choices might motivate girls and women to follow their passion, which might as well be for mathematics.


I always enjoyed puzzles, brain teasers and eventually mathematics, when I got to know it. The abstraction, simplicity and the beauty of mathematics always excited me. The satisfaction of solving a very difficult problem or understanding an abstract concept is one of a kind. When it was a time to choose university major, I decided to continue with mathematics. However,

I was continuously discouraged by various people surrounding me, including my school teachers.

Their argument was that math is not a good career choice for a woman. I am very grateful to my family for supporting my decisions throughout my entire career choice process.


WHAT ABOUT GENDER PAY GAP. CAN THIS BE ANOTHER REASON HOLDING WOMEN BACK, IN ADDITION TO COMBINING SCIENCE WITH FAMILY AMBITIONS?

I believe gender gap is a global problem and not only applied to the field of mathematics.

Gender pay gap is caused by a social construction which means that it can be and should be eliminated.

After all, gender discrimination is discouraging and delays development of entire fields and industries. The argument that women are natural caregivers and their performance slows down influenced by changes in personal life is not a valid argument but a justification for undermining women. On the other hand, starting a family is a choice and the responsibility must be shared both by man and a woman.

The field itself has some career uncertainty too. It is not clear what you will be doing after graduation.

This can create hesitation and draw back women who plan to start family and need a clear plan on where they are heading.

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