Maths, once arguably the most feared subject, is now…fun? What does this shift say about our relationship with maths- and is it for the better?
Numbers are one of the most important aspects of day-to-day life, from budgets and bills, to schedules and daily decisions, basic numeracy and mathematics are vital skills. Yet, for many, the mere mention of the “M” word, never mind what is under the umbrella of the term, elicits memories that would rather be forgotten. With maths teachers for parents, I’ve heard for years about the general public and schoolkids’ dislike for digits and struggles with sums. Despite the importance of maths flying heavily under the radar and being largely ignored by much of society, a recent TikTok trend, which began as a relatable and humorous way to justify spending, has sparked a conversation that delves into deeper societal critiques.
So-called “Girl Math”, which started initially as a light-hearted joke, is now quickly becoming a battleground for debates surrounding gender, stereotypes, and unfortunately, societal biases. At its core, it was a harmless way for many women to laugh at themselves for certain shared societal behaviours that are somehow simultaneously logical and illogical. There is no definition as such, but “Girl Math” ranges from profiting from a refund (while not actually making a profit), to spending more to get free shipping, and justifying large purchases by calculating the cost per usage. However, the trend has recently spiralled in a dangerous direction and ventured towards some harsh realities, when it began to be implied that women are not capable of maths, and the complexities of this relationship were revealed.
Despite the seriousness surrounding this and the deeper issue that it has uncovered in society, critics are continuing to argue that the trend “has been accused of fueling sexism”, with statements such as “Can’t we have a funny joke?”. In August, Daniela Soto, who works at a mental health startup in Los Angeles, posted a video on TikTok explaining “Girl Math” and what she perceives to be “free money”. Speaking to The Guardian she stated: “Women are equally capable of making fun of themselves, society’s expectations, and gender norms”, meanwhile, Malaysia Michelle, a beauty content creator said: “When I first heard the trend ‘Girl Math’, I actually thought to myself, ‘Wow, finally a phrase I can use to validate my delusions of being a girl who loves to treat herself whenever and however she can.’”
It has been said that applying deeper meanings to, or not choosing to, under the context of “Girl Math” is disallowing women to have something that belongs uniquely to them without it being dissected, derided or overanalysed. Maddy Mitchell, an American content creator, stated that “people are blowing it out of proportion” and “flipping the narrative to make it seem like girls are dumb”. But, shouldn’t there be the concern of financial illiteracy, especially among young people, who lack the understanding and life experience of handling money and finances?
Yet, TikToks with the hashtag #girlmath have been viewed over 488 million times, with many comments emphasising the sexist stereotypes about “shopaholic” women that have been reinforced by the fad. Regardless of the origin of the joke, social media is allowing these nonchalant trends to reach an audience that is too vulnerable to persuasion. Young girls are looking to be validated by the attention of others and are constantly seeking role models to look up to, often through social media, despite the negative consequences. It is ignorant to think that young girls, especially, will understand the joke behind the “Girl Math” trend or the fact that having a laugh is a way that many people deal with trauma or negative experiences. As a result, potentially subconsciously, “Girl Math” is going to start interfering with the relationship between females and maths, diminishing its importance and placing young girls in a vulnerable position for debt, poor financing and money management.
To echo the societal issues behind the concept of “Girl Math”, Hannah Fry, a notable mathematician, attributes the lack of a positive relationship between women and maths to sexism. In a world where gender biases are present in various aspects of society, maths is no exception, with the stereotype that boys are naturally better at maths, whilst girls struggle in silence, having to fight in a male environment to be heard. Her TED Talk on the mathematics of love explores the roles of algorithms in our romantic lives, revealing the omnipresence of maths in all facets of life, triggering a shift in mindset and urging people to see beyond the tedious formulas and appreciate the practicality of numerical literacy in our daily lives.
Initiatives and charitable organisations such as National Numeracy are also working to empower children and adults in the UK to feel confident with everyday maths so they can fulfil their potential at work, home and school as well as to improve how people understand and work with numbers. The aim of the charity is to create a route for people towards better opportunities and brighter futures, through helping people to overcome anxieties about maths and numeracy and boosting confidence. As National Numeracy emphasises, numerical proficiency is not just about solving complex equations, it is about equipping people with the tools and knowledge to navigate the financial challenges of life.
Returning to the concept of “Girl Math”, it becomes evident that it is more than a TikTok trend, but rather a coping mechanism and survival strategy in a world dominated by money and finances. While the creative number juggling might provide momentary relief from the pressures of budgeting, it also underscores a need for comprehensive numeracy education, especially among young people. National Numeracy’s initiatives alongside Hannah Fry’s advocacy represent a collective effort to transform society’s relationship with maths, dispelling the myths that have been placed at the forefront of many’s beliefs. It is an attempt to demonstrate that maths is not bound by gender norms, and to bridge the gender gap and encourage numerical literacy for everyone.