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93% of Americans face math anxiety
You might know the feeling of sweaty palms, racing pulse, or just a genuine dread of working with numbers. It’s comforting to know how common it is, but how might this be hurting us when it comes to our finances?
Today, we’re joined by Brittany Rhodes of Black Girl MATHgic, a math subscription box service for girls in the 3rd-8th grade.
Brittany takes us through what math anxiety is and how it often affects young girls the most, both from messaging in our every day media, and how we talk about math in our own homes. Brittany’s love for math is infectious, and you’ll walk away from this conversation with so much value.
What math anxiety is and how it develops
Why girls are more likely to experience math anxiety
How racial disparities widen this gap
How to become more math-confident
Brittany Rhodes is a math tutor, former GED Math Instructor, and Founder and General MATHager of Black Girl MATHgic (BGM). BGM’s flagship product is the Black Girl MATHgic Box, which is the first and only monthly subscription box designed to increase math confidence and decrease math anxiety in girls on a 3rd- 8th grade math level. Black Girl MATHgic has been featured on BEYONCE.com, Forbes, National Math & Science Initiative, and more, and named STEM Toy Expert’s 2020 Best STEM Subscription Box for Kids: Best for GRL PWR and one of Hello Subscription’s 2020 Best Subscription Boxes for Kids.
Brittany received her Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from Spelman College and her Master of Business Administration in Marketing, Communication and Organizational Behavior from the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University. Brittany is a proud native of Detroit, where she lives with her husband and daughter.
Save 10% on your first box with code “MATHISFUN”: https://blackgirlmathgic.com/
Hello, Financial Feminists. Welcome back. So excited to see you. We went on a little bit of a summer break. It was very lovely. We all got very tan and we appreciate you staying with us, giving us a much needed break. It was very nice to have a little bit of time off and our team and myself appreciate it. So, thanks for sticking with us and thanks for listening to previous episodes too, and catching up. If you haven’t rated the show, reviewed the show, subscribed to the show, please do so, easiest way to support us and to support our mission of financial feminism. And as always, a reminder that my book is out, Financial Feminist: Overcome the Patriarchy’s Bullshit to Master Your Money and Build a Life You Love, is available wherever you get your books, available in hard cover, available in ebook and available in an audiobook read by yours truly.
Please feel free to check those out. We’ll link it in the show notes. Today’s episode, if you saw the word Math in the episode title, and you were like, “No, no, no, no, no,” started immediately sweating, know that you’re not alone. We know from countless studies and statistics that women are constantly told that we are not as good at math and science as men, and that math and science are not, quote unquote, “for us”. And it also sets us up for more anxiety with our finances in the future. Our guest today has had enough of that and decided to create a product that helps promote math literacy among children with a specific focus on young Black girls. In addition, changing not only young girls’ perspective around math, but also changing us as adults. Brittany Rhodes is a math tutor, former GED Math Instructor, and Founder and General MATHager of Black Girl MATHgic.
BGM’s flagship product is the Black Girl MATHgic Box, which is the first and only monthly subscription box designed to increase math confidence and decrease math anxiety in girls from a third to eighth grade math level. Black Girl MATHgic has been featured on beyonce.com, Forbes, National Math and Science Initiative, and more and named STEM Toy Expert’s 2020 Best STEM Subscription Box for Kids.
I actually got connected with Brittany because we partnered a couple months ago with Dove Chocolate to give multiple grants to women-founded businesses, and she was one of the recipients of those grants. This episode is for every girl who thought she wasn’t good at math, who’s felt anxiety over their finances because of math, for people who think, “I’m bad at math, so I’ll be terrible at money,” not true, and for parents or caregivers looking for ways to encourage young women in their lives to help grow their confidence. We get into why math anxiety exists, the disparities in the way we teach math to young girls, and how we can change our own mindset around math and money. You’re going to absolutely love Brittany. Her passion is so infectious and amazing, so let’s go ahead and get into it. I’m so excited to have you. Thank you for being here. I would love for you to tell me where your love of math began, and did you immediately feel like an anomaly for being a woman who liked math and felt comfortable with math?
My love for math actually began when I was very young, because I don’t have a memory of not ever enjoying math. It has always been my favorite subject from elementary school all the way through high school and of course, through college and beyond. I don’t even have a memory of not liking math, and even though I struggle sometimes. Math didn’t always come easy to me, but it was still something I very much enjoyed. I’ve been a math enthusiast my whole life.
That’s amazing. We’ll spend a lot of the interview chatting about this, but one of the things that I had chatted with my team about, in preparation for this interview, is unfortunately, the statistics back this up as well. We see, I think, that girls are conditioned to believe that math is not for them, so they’re either not given the resources they need to succeed at things like math or science, but they’re also actively told, “Girls are not good at math. Math is not for you. Go, focus on reading or writing.”
I mean, I’m a communication and theater major in college, I was never actually that bad at math. I think I grew to like writing more and I wonder how much of that was my honest interest or the environment that we all grow up in, that tells us what we should or should not like. Can you touch on that a little bit more kind of the way that we think about, especially if you’re a woman identifying person, math is this like scary or intimidating thing?
Absolutely. There are children, from the minute were born, and even as I’m looking down here at someone who has now finished their meal, the messaging around mathematics and who gets
to do mathematics and who gets to be good at mathematics and who gets to have fun with mathematics starts very early. One of the things I noticed, since I’ve started Black Girl MATHgic, I think, I don’t know if it’s increased or if I notice it more now, you know how sometimes you get a white car and then you start seeing white cars everywhere. But one of the things I’ve noticed and it’s been discussed many times, is how math and science are presented in our children’s media, their toys, their TV shows. So anytime, I would probably say 99% of the time, on a TV show, when the popular girl is struggling in school, what class is she struggling in?
It’s math. And then the person who comes in to tutor her is who? The ugly duckling, the nerdy girl, the one with the glasses and the braces and the pimples that no one thinks is cool, that no one thinks is cute. What is this message telling our kids? It’s not a blatant message, so we have now made it a game and it’s not a funny game, but my mother and I… My mother’s a retired principal so education has always been a non-negotiable in my household and she just really instilled in me a love of education and the love of teaching. Although I never ended up in a classroom, tutoring is much more my speed and that’s where I got my legs, so to speak.
But now, we sit and watch TV and we literally point out all the times, we hear these negative messages about math to the point that I was like, “I need to pull out a notebook and start noting this down and maybe even put together some type of video collage,” because just everywhere, you’re hearing it about girls, even boys, like if he passes his algebra class, he’ll get this particular incentive, all of these various messages. It starts really, really early. But of course, for girls, studies have been done that show not only through pop culture media and those types of things, but even the female adults in their lives. So mom, aunts, teacher, even female teachers, because a lot of times teachers have math anxiety that is not resolved and then they go into a classroom and they unknowingly pass it along to their students. But a study was done not too long ago that talked about how math phobic and math anxious language from a female adult is much more detrimental on a girl than it is on a boy.
In fact, that study found that boys didn’t really internalize those types of messages from the female adults in their lives, but girls did. So one of the things I typically recommend to my parents, or even in the materials we put in the Black Girl MATHgic boxes is, “Watch your language around your kids when it comes to math.” It’s very easy to kind of fall into that, “Mommy wasn’t a math person,” or, “I don’t know, what is that? What is this new math you got?” All of those different messages tell kids, especially girls, both directly and indirectly that math is something that you either are good at it, or you’re not, you either have the gene or you don’t, and that there’s nothing you can do about it, which we know is not true.
My dad was an engineer and so he was the one who helped with my math homework. I don’t know if my mom ever did. I think he was better at math than my mom and is better at math, but it’s like chicken or the egg, it’s that, nurture nature, and I would argue, I don’t think women are born bad at math. It might not be our favorite subject or it might honestly be one we struggle with, but I think you’re just as likely to struggle with any other subject, too. We’re just conditioned to believe that math is difficult and hard and intimidating.
Much like personal finance, which was the perfect segue, I didn’t even mean to do it. I get asked all the time like, “If you’re a personal finance expert, you must be really good at math.” And there’s like this narrative that you can only be good at money if you’re good at math. And I would like to remind everybody listening, I majored in theater in college, and communications, and now I’m a finance expert. I think there is a misconception that you have to be good at math in order to be good at money. Do you find that to be true?
Well, I feel like that’s an absolute statement and I wouldn’t necessarily speak in absolutes in that sense, but I do think that having a strong foundation in basic mathematics will serve you very well in the personal finance and financial literacy space. Because you need math to be able to calculate, right? So you need math to be able to multiply. I mean, multiplication is math, addition is math, division and subtraction is math. So you need those basic skills to understand personal finance, to help build that financial literacy. Although, I tend to be able to connect math to everything, but as you mentioned, you have a communications and theater background, which does have some math in it, but here you are, now a finance expert.
I think it’s perpetuated. I think it’s a narrative that’s perpetuated as the, not excuse, because again, I think it’s socially conditioned, but I think it’s the thing of like, “I can’t get my financial together because I’m not good at math.” And I’m like, “You need a calculator.” You can do it with a calculator and with a spreadsheet that does most of the calculation for you. I don’t think you have to be, not only a math expert, but like math, good at math, in order to get good at your money. Those things, I don’t think, are mutually inclusive. It’s really interesting because again, my background is like, I took math. I liked math. Math was fine, but definitely I was a reading and writing kind of girl.
But it’s interesting too, because when people say that to me, sometimes when people meet, and I’ve talked about this with some of my other friends who have math degrees and math backgrounds. Sometimes, people feel like they have to explain why they feel like they’re not a math person or they’re talking about their child, if it’s a parent, and they’ll say, “She’s really creative, she’s into the arts.” And I’m like, I love saying it to students. I’m like, “Who told you, you had to pick? Who told you that you had to choose?” And guess what, they’re more connected than you realize they are. In fact, in the Black Girl MATHgic Box, we do different themes every month, and we show kids the math that exists in all of these real world scenarios. We did a dance machine. The thing was called dance machine and we were doing dancing math, so we were measuring angles of different dance poses. We’ve done music boxes where we’re converting the music notes into fractions and manipulating the fractions in different ways because music, after all, the notes are fractions.
A measure, you’re going to have quarter notes, right?
Yep. They’re fractions. So anytime I hear that, I’m like, “See, the world told you that it was either, or but it’s not.”
Right. It’s kind of like sports and arts. You kind of had to pick one. You were either the baseball player or in choir. And I feel like some people could do both, but I feel like there was that pressure eventually to pick. You were either an athlete or you were… But I see a lot of parallels and it’s like, High School Musical taught us that you can do both.
This is true. Because I’m a tutor and because I’m often working with students who have varying levels of math anxiety, and aren’t always confident, I love to use myself as an example to show them what’s possible. Yes, I was in AP calculus in high school. Yes, I took five math classes in four years, but I also was on the newspaper staff for two. I was on the yearbook staff for two. I went to journalism camp, summer camp when I was going into the 10th grade because I loved to write, I used to write poems when I was little, and I loved multiplication. I feel like the way math is presented in the United States is that it’s a siloed activity. If you’re into it, you can’t be into anything else.
And that is really damaging, especially for our children to get those messages. So I often like to, whenever I have a platform, whenever I have an ear, I just love to underscore that you can be multifaceted with math. You can enjoy math and enjoy reading and all of those other things. But the one point I wanted to make that you brought up a couple of times is you were saying, “Is it that I was conditioned not to really be into math? Or did I just really love reading and writing a lot more?” I cited a lot of studies because as you mentioned earlier, they just help provide more context and make more sense of what we’re dealing with. There actually was another study done, and I don’t remember who conducted it, but it found that it wasn’t that girls were, quote unquote, “bad at math”, it was just that they were better or they felt that they were better at reading and writing and the humanities. And I was like, “Interesting, very interesting.”
That’s really interesting. You’ve mentioned a couple times this concept of math anxiety, can you define it for us? And then tell us why you think it’s such a huge issue.
Yes. Math anxiety, there are a few different definitions, but when you drill it down, it’s negative emotions around doing and solving math problems, and that can be in a variety of context. My favorite scenario to illustrate math anxiety is, back in the day, before the restaurants really got preview at how to offer separate checks, so the bill comes out, it’s a group of eight, it’s a group of 10. What does everybody do back in the day when the bill comes out? “What? Throw the hands up, not me. I’m not the one. Don’t look at me. Don’t look at me to split this bill up,” because it’s math involved in doing that. Math anxiety can take on a variety of different forms. It can be physical. Similar to how people feel if they have a fear of public speaking, sweaty hands, palpitating heart, nerves just kind of all over the place.
It can look certain ways emotionally like fear, tears. I’ve had to feel tears in several tutoring sessions. Avoidance, if we are anxious about something, we tend to not even want to deal with it. And then from a scientific perspective, the brain, the part that helps with that short term memory, sometimes it just goes out to lunch when that test is put in front of you, because it’s like, “I know I just studied all this, but I’m having this anxious moment.” It’s kind of like stage fright where I just have forgotten everything. Those are just a few examples of math anxiety. And ed.gov actually has this really glaring stat that I alwa
ys love to share not because I love it, but because it really illustrates what we’re dealing with and that is approximately 93% of American adults experience math anxiety on some level. 93%.
I mean, I’m in that 93%, I think. Whenever I go out and I’m trying to calculate my tip, I’m like, “I can’t.” It takes me much longer than it should. I have to sit there and I have to take 10% and then double it and then I’m like, “Okay, we’re starting here.” Because I can do 10% easy and then I double it and then I’m like, “Okay, we’re starting there.” Definitely, I’m in that percentage.
That’s a good strategy that math teachers teach children when they’re learning percentages and that kind of thing. Actually, I used to teach GED math to adults. I remember one day in class, we were going through a particular lesson and one of the students raised her hand and she said, “I used to work in retail,” and she said, “I know that 10% is where I could start to get to the answer.” And I’m like, “Yes. Great, great way to do that.”
Was it because of 10% was her commission? Is that what it was?
I don’t know. I don’t know if it was because it was her commission or is it because of sales and markdowns and that kind of thing maybe, or maybe both.
Maybe. That would make more sense. No, that would make more sense. I feel like you get better percentages, of course, the more you’re around them.
Exactly, and they show up everywhere. That’s what we try to do is make these connections. So 93% of American does experience math anxiety, and to drill that down even further, math anxiety has been shown to have a much harsher impact on females and people of color than it does the rest of the population, and that’s for a variety of reasons, some of which we’ve touched on already. Societal bias, stereotype threat, “You’re a girl. You must not be good at math.” Well, some people actually internalize that stereotype and then that’s exactly what happens. Looking at those two things combined, this high percentage of adults who just are fearful and anxious around math, and then understanding that there are some additional factors that cause math anxiety to be a lot more detrimental in doubly marginalized populations. I was looking at that and I was like, “I feel like I need to create something that’s going to address both of those things simultaneously,” and catch people before they become adults, so children, let me catch them, before they become grownups, who are fearful of math and let’s rewrite this narrative.
This concept of math anxiety, do you feel like, in the people you tutor, of course, this will show up, but what sort of stories or language do the students you tutor use when they are expressing math anxiety?
It’s shown up in so many different ways, and I often like to say that it shows up in boys and girls. I don’t want to paint this picture that only girls are math anxious, or only girls feel like they aren’t good at math because that’s not the case. But we just know that it’s a confidence gap between typically, generally speaking, between a boy and a girl, we know the messages, we’ve already talked about that. What I have seen, I’ll give two clear examples that I think really underscore how it shows up. One of my students, I think she’s in the eighth grade now, but at the time she was in the fifth or sixth grade. I was at her house and we were working on a concept and she had a grasp of the concept, she was working independently.
She didn’t need my intervention at that point, so I’m just sitting there observing her. I’m not saying much. I’m watching her work through the problems and I’m excited with what I see. And then out of her mouth, she says, “Ms. Brittany, I’m just not good at this.” And I was legit confused. I was like, “What do you mean? You’re literally doing it. You’re literally doing the problems. You’re doing them correctly. You look okay. You’re not looking flustered.” She was like, “I’m just not good at this.” I stopped for a minute and I said, “What does it mean to be good at math? In your definition, what does it mean for someone to be good at math?” And she said, “They’re fast, that they’re fast, that they do math problems quickly.”
I remember in that moment and I just said, “Okay.” And she looked over at me and she was like, “Are you going to tell my mom?” She thought she was in trouble. She did. She thought she was in trouble. After that, it was my mission, of course, not only to help her with her immediate
math assignments, but also, we had to do some mindset shifting. Again, and I get it, in school, you got the math time tests and who can do the multiplication problems the fastest? Again, messages that are always being delivered to our children whether we realize it or not.
No, that’s so right. You sit there, you got 60 seconds, and you’re doing what? 40 multiplication problems or something like that. And I used to rip through those and I used to feel so good when I got those done.
So accomplished? And it works for some kids. It works for some, but it doesn’t work for every kid and it can be very detrimental.
This is bringing up my own thing where I think my parents literally told me, “If you are the first person to turn in your test, you are doing something wrong.” They were telling me like, “You need to double check your work and then triple check your work. Before you turn a test in, you probably don’t want to be the first person to turn the test in.” At the same time, you’re exactly right. We were being conditioned or told, “Well, you’re going to do 40 math problems. Now, they’re simple, but 40 math problems in 60 seconds.”
And we’re not doing that in reading class like, “Who can read 10 pages and 10 minutes?” No. That takes all the fun and joy out of it.
Right. Because in reading, you’re looking at comprehension, and if that takes you longer but you comprehend it really well, great. That’s like blowing my mind. Yes, because we value comprehension in reading rather than fully comprehension. In math, we value getting the right answer rather than maybe the process to which you got to the right answer.
You said it. Sorry. Are you preaching on the podcast today?
I don’t know. I just blew my own mind. Really, you got me there. But no, I’ve never thought of it that way before where math, it was about getting the right answer and reading, it was like, do you understand what you’re actually reading? Do you understand the words on the page and what the author’s trying to tell you? Do you think that this math anxiety and this lack of support for women in math or science-focused careers, STEM, has contributed to this larger wealth gap or this larger opportunity gap for women generally, and then specifically, for women of color?
I do. I think the short answer is definitely yes. Is it linear to keep going with, I love a good math pun and I mean, it fits. Is there a dotted line or a straight line that we can draw that says, “Math anxiety directly correlated to the wealth gap”? I don’t know. Things are a lot more complicated in our society. You might say it multiplies or if you want to go the next level, it grows exponentially. There’s definitely a connection I believe, and I believe that what we were talking about earlier, in talking about how people feel like, “I’m not good at math, ergo, I’m not going to be good at my finances. Or I’m not even going to try to get my finances together.” Well, of course, that finances, wealth, there are definitely some correlations there. I think there are a lot of other factors, structural racism, and things that we are still dealing with from many years ago that have not corrected themselves, or they have not been corrected, that play a role in that. But math anxiety is definitely in there somewhere, for sure.
I mean, again, I’m about to make a pun, but it compounds where it’s like, it’s these narratives that you’ve been told throughout your life, in addition to the lack of support. There’s a general lack of support for women, especially women of color, in STEM fields. I think it’s not just how we raise our girls, both from the parent side, but also society. And then it’s like, if hypothetically, you are told you’re good at math and are able to foster those skills, do you have the support to go to college to actually get a degree to further. So it’s not a just, “I’m nervous or scared about math.” It’s all of the things together that are compiling to provide a lack of opportunity.
Absolutely. There are many variables, and it’s so funny how we can keep using math language to discuss this, many variables and like you said, it’s cumulative, again, another math term. It’s not isolated, and this is such a perfect example of how math is in everything. But the points are well taken like literally, the common denominator, there are many variables and it is cumulative. I mean, we’re speaking true.
I would love to speak to your experience. Speaking of education, how is your experience at a PWI versus an HBCU? Do you think beginning your math career at an HBCU, Historically Black College University, helped you in your confidence as a mathematician?
Yes. So this is the thing, and I mentioned this earlier, or I alluded to it earlier. A lot of times when people hear that I have a math background, I have a math degree, or now, I have a math-based business, they automatically think that number one, I can multiply large numbers in my head, spoiler alert, I can’t. Like one time, I feel like I met somebody and came up in conversation that I had a math background. “What’s 438,362 times 21.9?” I don’t know. I don’t know.
You’re like, “I don’t know.” Was that person a man?
Probably. I don’t even remember because it’s happened multiple times over the years. People just, they have the most interesting reactions to that. That’s one piece of it.
They’re like, you can’t do it in your head. I can’t do-
And there are some people who can do that, but that doesn’t speak to their math ability, that’s something else like savant or prodigy or something else, and/or they think that math just has always come easily to me. It has not, I had to study, I had to work. I had to do pull all-nighters. And so, going to an HBCU where I didn’t have to worry about whether I was being treated a certain way because I was a female or because I was Black or both, happening at the same time, it really allowed me this environment. And on top of that, I went to an all women’s college, so I really was in this environment where I could flourish and where I could grow and blossom and not be afraid to ask questions and not be afraid to make mistakes, and everybody, who was there, was rooting for me.
I struggled through my math degree. I struggled. Like I mentioned, I stayed up all night, writing proofs over and over again on whiteboards. I dropped classes because I was about to fail them and then took them again. I stayed in my professor’s office hours and I had classmates, in my major, who didn’t have to do that. I struggled, I put in the work. I don’t know what my experience would’ve been like at a PWI in that moment, because it really was a confidence dropper because up until college, math had always been pretty easy for me. Now, again, that doesn’t mean I didn’t struggle because I always studied well, but once I got to college and the numbers slowly started disappearing and it was replaced with just letters and Greek symbols and proofs and theorems and abstract thinking, it was a wake up call for me.
Being in an environment where I had classmates to commiserate and study with, and everybody wanted to help everybody, it was a beautiful experience, and that helped me in my journey to my PWI for graduate school, because I had gained that assurance and that confidence at my HBCU that I needed to then go into an environment where I was a minority and I was pretty young when I start. I got my MBA. Typically, it’s advised that you have a few years of work experience when you start an MBA program and I was only 23. I had only been out of college for about two years so I was pretty young. I had that going as well, but I was more confident. I mean, I won’t lie though. I was intimidated. I have some just brilliant classmates. I felt like, “Okay, I’m supposed to be here, too,” because I had been poured into so much at my HBCU, and I had a math background and I was at Carnegie Mellon for graduate school, which, of course, has a great theater program.
I didn’t know you went to Carnegie Mellon. Yes, they have like top three musical theater program in the country. My dad is from the Pittsburgh area.
I mean, and all these puns, but even thinking about Carnegie Mellon has a great theater program, but it’s also known for its quantitative rigor. Interesting, right? It has this strong arts reputation, but also this strong engineering and STEM reputation. I had that going. I was like, “I can thrive here because I have this background.” I had to take statistics to get going in that program because it was so quite heavy, but I already had that foundation, and that’s really what I just want our kids to have that foundation, that core, because if you have that strong foundation and that strong core, especially in math, you can do anything.
I love it. Talk to me about Black Girl MATHgic. You choose professionals each month to feature in your boxes, you had mentioned that, about how they might use math in the real world. What are you looking for in the people you choose to be like representative of the theme in that month’s box?
Yes. So I don’t have a box without the stories of these women mathematicians. The first thing they have to have, and I was just talking to one of my teammates about this earlier. I said, “This may change, but we’re going into our third year and I don’t know when this will stop,” but all of the mathematicians we feature in the Black Girl MATHgic Boxes have at least one advanced degree in math. And that could also be like maybe actuarial science or data analytics or something, that it’s not mathematics, but it’s something closely related. The reason why I set it up like that is because it’s a few things. I’m not necessarily trying to push a student towards being a math major although, of course, I would not be mad at the outcome. I’m just trying to show the various career pathways that are available to you with a math background.
Where did that come from? When I was at my college majoring in math in the early 2000s, any time, again, the 99% of the time, along with thinking we can do large multiplication in our head, multiplication of the large numbers in our head, the narrative was always, “So you’re going to be a teacher.” Spoil alert, I never wanted to be a traditional classroom teacher, and a lot of people thought too, because my mother was a teacher and then a principal, lifelong educator, that I was going to be in the classroom as well. I was never interested in a classroom of students because I wasn’t confident in my ability to manage many children at one time. I watched my mother do it. I was like, “I don’t know if I have that gift.” Tutoring is much more my speed.
I love the one on one, one to one, or small group. When I would say, “Actually, I’m not really interested in classroom teaching.” People were like clutching their invisible pearls like, “Oh my goodness, what are you going to do?” Like there was no other career opportunity available to somebody with a math background. So that’s why every single month, I find a woman mathematician, again, someone who has a math degree, at least one, and whatever they do in their either career or hobby, or both, we turn that into a theme. I’ll just go back to one of the things I mentioned earlier since we’ve been talking about the arts. Last year, we featured, and we make the themes fun and exciting and catchy, stuff that stands out. This thing was the dancing machine. We featured a young lady named Donna, who’s also a Detroiter like me.
She is a mathematician. She has a Bachelor’s in Mathematics, a minor in English. Who does that? I found someone. And she works for the US Army as a cost analyst by day, but she spent almost a decade, maybe longer, as a founder and head coach of her high school’s dance team and have been dancing since she was like three years old. So we did dance math, and the whole box was around dance math. What does that look like? Every box comes with the story of the woman mathematician. We interview them and we write a bio and do an interview and turn that into something that the kids can read. So now they’re reading in the math box, and then we also include three to five items to bring the theme to life, understanding that a lot of times math, again, doesn’t feel tangible.
It feels very abstract, so we’ve put stuff in there that they can touch, that they can feel. At least one of those items is going to be a screen free math activity or manipulative. In Donna’s box, because it was a dance box and we were looking at geometry and angles, primarily we included some angle legs, which are like these little manipulatives where kids can create different angles and study different geometric concepts, but it’s a dance box. We got to have some fun, too, so we put a duffle bag in there, because what do dancers always carry when they’re going to their competitions in those things? Duffle bags. We did a custom duffle bag and then we also include stickers, because girls love stickers. They just love them. Stickers, we also include a math affirmation because again, we’re talking about, it’s the confidence we’re working on.
We include an original statement. Sometimes, it’s related to the theme, sometimes it’s not, that just uses I, me, or my, that a girl can look at and read when she needs to extra boost her confidence around her math ability, maybe right before a test or maybe after a test, a homework assignment that didn’t go so well. Then we include a math activity booklet. We have a third through fifth grade one and then for a sixth to eighth grade one, and that’s where they’re doing the math related to the theme. I mentioned earlier, when we think about dance, that’s a lot of angles, understanding patterns. We had different dance poses that we put in the booklet and we were like, “Get your protractor out and measure these angles.” “Thank you.” Because when you’re dancing, you’re just creating a lot of different angles.
We want to make those connections between what’s being taught in the classroom and real life. We have them make up TikTok dances as kind of in a suggestion for future activities, which we include on our caring adult guide. So understanding that mom or another female is typically the o
ne purchasing the box for the girls. Obviously, a lot of women have carried math anxiety from childhood over into adulthood and we didn’t want them to feel inadequate or like, “I don’t have any tools to help my daughter or my girl with this box,” so we included caring adult guide and we included a notepad because we asked the mathematicians too, like, “What is in your mathematician bag? What can’t you live without?” Kind of like how the magazines used to ask the celebrities like, what’s in your bag? So Donna says she couldn’t live without a to-do list.
And so whenever we can sneak in social, emotional learning, or building other life skills, we like to do that, as well. Because she says she couldn’t live without a to-do list, we put a notepad in there with to-dos on there, helping kids learn how to manage their time and those types of things. That’s what we do every single month. We’re going into box, I can’t remember, 30 something and we’ve done it all. We’ve done financial literacy math, three different times. We’re actually getting ready to do a fourth installment. We call it Secure the Bag. Our May theme is Secure the Bag Part Four, Employeepreneur, where we’ll be featuring an entrepreneur who also works full time at a corporate job, just to help kids understand, again, you can do both. You can have a business.
Yep. I did it for many years.
And I think there’s this, kind of, as an aside, I’ve seen in some of my students this narrative of not wanting to answer to authority, so I’m just going to start my own business. Well guess what?
You still have clients you have to work with.
You still have clients, you still have customers. You still have people to answer to, but guess what else? You also can learn some really great skills on how to run a business in a corporation or an organization before you do it.
I learned a lot of how I did not want to run my business by working at business.
Some cautionary tales in there, for sure. We’ve done real estate. We’ve done entrepreneurship, social media, dancing, quilting, baking, cooking, and I could go on and on. That’s the box in a nutshell.
That’s amazing. What do you think the impact of having these kind of role models has on young women, especially when the role models are doing things that you A, never thought possible, but specifically role models who look like you? What is that impact?
Man, that impacted it’s immeasurable. I mean, it really is priceless because there’s a saying now that we see a lot on social media, that representation matters, and it really does. It’s very difficult for us to put ourselves in a position to see ourselves doing a thing if we don’t see somebody who looks like us, doing that thing as well, especially a thing like math, where it’s already so villainized. It’s already villainized in society but then on top of that, I don’t see anybody who looks like me, who’s doing it so what makes me think that I can do it, especially when you’re a kid. The box has helped so many girls and even some boys too, because we do have boys who have had a chance to work with the box as well, has given them that concept around, have you heard of that concept around windows and mirrors? We talked about that a lot like with children’s books when they were talking about the diversity of children’s books.
I don’t think so. Tell me about it.
There is someone, and I don’t know how long ago, but basically they were positing that, and this was, again, the conversation started with children’s books in the United States and being largely focused on white characters. It was like, “We need to give our kids windows and mirrors.” Mirrors, so they can see themselves in the products that they’re using and the books that they’re reading.
And is it
windows so they understand somebody else’s experience? I was going to say, if I had to guess. I’m using my reading comprehension skills to determine… No, that’s beautiful. It’s a beautiful way of putting that. I’ve never heard it put that way. Mirror, so you can see yourself and windows so you can see somebody else? Cool.
I didn’t learn about it until I started BGM, and this was after I had started it, but it was just another great talking point for me to really better illustrate the work that I do because, of course, the name of the business was triggering. Especially when I first started, I was getting messages left and right. “Well, my daughter isn’t Black,” or, “I have a son,” or, “why do we have to have race?” And I’m like, “I know. Why?”
“Because the entire world is built for you. The entire world is built for you. This one thing is for somebody else. I’m sorry it pisses you off. I’m sorry.” We get the same thing with men being like, “just women”.
I’m like, “Financial Feminists, you can be any gender identity, but yes, we work largely with women because the world was not built for us.”
And you’re just really sitting there like, “Am I having to explain this in the 21st century? Are these words really having to come out of my mouth right now?” And the thing is, Black girls are not the only subscribers we have, we have white families. We had a non-binary person who had no children, who’s like a mathematical librarian at a university and just liked the product, who was subscribed for almost maybe over a year. We have teachers who aren’t Black, who use it in their classrooms. I mean, it has so many uses, but it’s making sure that those who are considered the least of us, which is girls, Black children, and then the intersectionality of that, which is a Black girl, that she understands that this subject is for her too, in a world that’s telling her it’s not.
Yep, totally. I love it. What are some simple ways that we can overcome math anxiety as adults? I’ll start there, and then I have a follow-up question for you.
Some simple ways that we can overcome math anxiety as adults is first, naming it. Instead of saying, “I’m not a math person,” because actually we all are math people, just say, “I am experiencing math anxiety or I have experienced math anxiety.” So understanding that, that’s what’s-
Or, “Math makes me nervous.”
Exactly, and that’s okay. It happens to a lot of folks. We already talked about that. That’s the first piece of it. And then putting yourself in situations where you have to do math, which is not hard to do because it’s everywhere. Even coming up with fun games. Wordle is all the rage right now, but there’s a numbers component, you want to guess the name of it?
Nerdle, have you heard of it?
No. Is it Nerdle?
I took number and Wordle. No, I haven’t heard of it, but I also do hurdle, which is, it plays you a second of a song and you have to guess what song it is. There’s a bunch of these like iterations w
here they take the beginning of one word and then it’s ur. It’s durdle or whatever. That’s very funny. No, I haven’t heard about those.
Nerdle. Actually, one of my teammates who helps with the math activity booklets, she told me about it. I had not heard of it. It’s a fun game where you’re literally trying to figure out what an equation is in the same way that you played a Wordle.
I’m immediately nervous. My body is now dreading.
Are your hands sweating?
Yep. I’m like, “No, thank you. This sounds like a nightmare.” No.
No. I played it once. It was fun.
What is it? Nerdle?
Nerdle, like nerd, L-E. In the spirit of overcoming math anxiety, putting yourself out there by doing math-based fun activities, like a Nerdle, like a Sudoku, as an adult, not only are you having fun with math or at least attempting to, but you’re also exercising that brain, keeping that brain sharp. That’s one suggestion or recommendation.
I’ll do it later.
You should try it.
I will try it.
I might have to email you like, “What do you think?”
I’m trying to be present for you and then I looked and it gives you like the whole list of rules.
Did you look?
And I was like, “I need to be fully present if I’m going to read these.” So I’m like, “I’m not going to try to do-“
Well, I mean, I’m sure it’s uniform wherever, but I hope you’re looking at the same, what I was looking at because I don’t remember all of that. I don’t know if I remember all of what you have for-
I mean, Wordle does that too, when you first start, it’s like, “Here’s how to play it.”
Does it? Okay.
You scared me for a second, and I was on my computer.
For the uninitiated, there’s the word I was trying to say.
I was on my computer, so it was a little wider of a screen. Your screen looked really robust. So that would be the first one, is just playing fun math games. The second one would be to, if you have a young person in your life, kids, godchildren, nieces, nephews, work with them on their math homework and try and make it a game. Gamifying is really a concept in math because it can be fun if done properly. But make it a game to see if you can not use any math phobic language while you’re helping this young person with their work, and/or have them teach you what they’re learning in math class or teach them something you know because guess what? We all know math. We all, most of us, I think all of us, know that two plus two equals four in the traditional sense.
I also still remember the quadratic formula, that is buried in here.
I think so, x equals negative b plus or minus the square root… Hold on. Minus 4ac all over 2a. Hold on. I’ll get the first part. The first part I missed, x equals negative b plus or minus the square root… What’s the first part?
You have all the other stuff.
It’s this minus 2ac that I can’t remember, and that’s all over 2a.
Wait, first you said 4ac, then you said 2ac.
I did. Hold on. It’s set to the dan, dan, darararan, that’s how I remember it.
X equals negative b plus or minus the square root of [inaudible 00:47:50] 4ac all over 2a. I think it’s 4ac.
That’s my final thing, but I can’t remember before 4ac. I was out here bragging like, “Yes, I remember the quadratic formula.” I don’t remember.
You remember a lot more than most people do who don’t have to use it blatantly or directly.
I know. It’s literally just because we put it to a tune, that’s the only way.
See, but that works. It works. It’s b squared. I was just about to tell you. It’s the square root of b squared minus 4ac.
B squared minus 4ac all over 2a. Thank you.
You had it.
Yep. I did. I was close. But I love that, so asking what they’re working on or telling them something that you remember.
Yep. That’s another one. And just putting yourself in positions where you have to do math, which it’s everywhere so it’s not hard. I mean, it’s difficult to overcome anxiety, in general, but you can work towards it just like you can work towards overcoming other challenges.
And then my second follow-up question is, how can we help young girls overcome their math anxiety?
This is a question I ask the mathematicians every single month in their interview. What is one tip you would give to a girl who doesn’t feel confident in her math ability? My goal, which is my big hairy audacious goal is for them to never know math anxiety in the first place. But, while I’m working on that, we still have thousands of girls who are experiencing math anxiety right now, who we have to make sure, feel supported in that it stops before they become adults. It’s really a lot of different things that we can do to help girls. I know I mentioned earlier, just as adults, especially women identifying adults, watching our language, watching what we say about math around girls, especially, or even if we think they’re not listening, because kids hear all kind of stuff. I got a seven month old and I’m like, “Once she’s old enough to know language, got to really watch the things that I say.”
I don’t mean I don’t talk crazy. But sometimes, things you say that you think are just harmless actually are not in the minds of impressionable young ones. In addition to that, they’re simple, but sometimes they’re difficult to put into practice, is for my young girls, reading the book and I do this a lot with my students, but one of the mathematicians, actually one who works at a bank, this was her advice. She was saying, “Read the textbook, read the instructions,” and you look at a problem and you’re not exactly sure how to solve it immediately, I invite my students to start drawing. Draw what you know about the problem. If it’s talking about a shape and maybe it’s asking for the area or something of that shape, draw the shape.
Because with you doing that, you’re kind of unlocking things in your brain that can help you get to the answer. The visuals can help you get to that answer or understand, as we talked about earlier, that work you through that process. But sometimes, more of my students then, do not care to share. They have put themselves in a situation where they’re very frustrated and they’re overwhelmed because they didn’t read the section before the problems in the textbook. I’m like, “Well, let’s go look,” because again, I’m a tutor so I’m going to first use the resources you have available to you. I have great reverence for your teacher and I want to respect their work and how they teach. So my question is typically, “What notes do you have? What did the teacher say about this or how to solve this?”
And then, “What did the books say? Did you read the section before?” A lot of times, my babies had not read it or they did that cursory read and then they didn’t go back when it was time to actually do the problems. And sometimes, there’s an example there for you that can be very helpful. There’s vocabulary and terminology there for you that can be very helpful. It sounds really basic, but I mean, you would be surprised how many kids are not invited to do that or don’t think to do that because we’re still helping them develop. That would be one kind of like basic, simple piece. And then if I could offer just from a more confidence building and kind of affirmative standpoint, it would be to understand that it’s okay to make mistakes.
I just feel like, again, the way math is presented in a lot of situations and scenarios is like, it’s this, “We talked about this time, this race against the clock. I got to get it right on the first try.” No, you don’t. Who told you? I mean, we know somebody told you, but who told you that you had to get it right on the first try and who told you that it had to be fast? I often tell my students, and it sticks, sometimes it doesn’t. I’m like, “You know pie, you know the first three digits, typically 3.14. Did you know that pie has trillions of digits?” And this is what I tell my students. I’m like, “And guess what? They’re still adding digits to pie as we speak,” and I don’t know the methodology or the process for how to find digits to add to pie. I’m just saying that it’s happening, and the point I’m making is that people who are actual mathematicians and this is their career and their life’s work, they work on problems slowly.
Brittany (< a href="https://www.rev.com/transcript-editor/Edit?token=BmZgl0CIf-aZa5-G7bWwz4AAPXN1X8tD7Yt15VkfUob2lAcrsjFkcdR-vU943m9BMx6yZeG8iRJbVeZV_KZrM-KfCpg&loadFrom=DocumentDeeplink&ts=3222.75">53:42):
We’ve all seen that movie of the problem they can’t solve.
A Beautiful Mind. Like all of those math-related movies, which I guess would be another good suggestion for the question about adults overcoming math anxiety, watch some fun, watch some good movies related to math. A Beautiful Mind’s a good one.
As a theater nerd, I think of Proof, but Proof is about math, but it’s more about family relationships. It’s kind of dark, but it’s one of my favorite plays. It’s also a movie, I think, with Gwyneth Paltrow. Kristen can correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s the one I think of all the time is Proof.
I haven’t seen that one. I have to check it out.
It’s good. I did a couple monologues of it in theater in college. So, there you go.
Nice. I mean, so many connections. Just being comfortable with making mistakes, I think releases a lot of pressure from young people. Because again, it’s just this concept, “If I don’t get it right, then I’ll never get it right.” And understanding that math is much like anything else in life, the more you study it, the more you practice it, the more you spend time with it. They all often talk about things not being a spectator sport. Math is one of them. You actually have to do math to get better at math. Those would be my two biggest pieces. But like I said, we could go all day, but every single month, we get a little tidbit from our mathematicians and the things they say, they’re just so powerful, and it’s funny because a lot of times they say different things. Even now, like I said, we’re on box 30 something and we have 30 different answers around that. But just understanding that it’s okay to make mistakes, but also making sure that you’re reading, studying, taking notes, all that fun stuff matters, as well.
Amazing. Thank you so much for just such a thoughtful conversation. Can you tell everybody, not only where to find you, but also how to support your incredible work that you’re doing?
Our website is blackgirlmathgic, M-A-T-H-G-I-C.com. I’m sure it’ll be in the show notes as well. Our social handles are on the website, but for Instagram, it’s @blackgirlmathgic, Facebook at Black Girl MATHgic, and then Twitter, Black Girl MATHgic was too long, so we shortened it to blkgirlmathgic. We’re on Tiktok, we’re just on there. Actually, thanks to you guys but I have not cracked the TikTok code.
It’s hard. The pace is hard. It’s ridiculous.
I can’t keep up. I just can’t. I can barely keep up with Facebook and Instagram. Actually, we have a subscription box, but sometimes people do ask, so we absolutely encourage, if you are an adult and you have a young person in your life who you feel would benefit from our product, to get a subscription, especially if they already have math anxiety, because we have to crowd out those negative messages with continuous positive messages in the box every month. All of our subscriptions can be purchased as a one time box. We also have past boxes in our online shop from inventory from past boxes that are available, and we make a great Christmas gift, birthday gift, just because gift. And we know that because we include gift notes and this is what it says on the gift notes, “Happy Birthday so and so,” so please check us out and support us in that way. Like I said, we’ve covered math from a variety of different angles, pun intended, so the young person in your life, we probably have a box for them that speaks to something that they’re interested in and passionate about.
And I will say, this is something you can use, regardless of your gender identity, regardless of your racial identity. It’s a great way to, of course, support a really cool cause, but also support an incredible woman of color, incredible Black woman, who has started this amazing company. So, if you don’t feel like you’re represented on
the box or your child’s not represented on the box, welcome to how people of color have been feeling forever. And that’s a great opportunity for you to have an even additional conversation. Please support her regardless of, if you aren’t a Black girl, I think this is just as beneficial. So thank you. Thank you again for being here.
Absolutely. Thank you, Tori.
Thank you, once again, to Brittany, for joining us for this episode. She showed us some of the subscription boxes and what comes in them and they’re just so cute and they’re so amazing and so informative. They’re just absolutely fantastic. We also sat down and interviewed Brittany about her business earlier this year and we’ll link that in the show notes if you’d like to read more about her work. She also gave us an incredible discount code for the girls in your life, especially for the girls of color in your life. Save 10% on your first box with code Math is Fun, at blackgirlmathgic.com. Again, linked in the show notes. Also, August is Black-owned business month so I encourage you to shop and support Black-owned businesses like Black Girl MATHgic. And even if you don’t have kids in your life who could benefit, you can also donate and sponsor boxes for families who cannot afford the subscription.
As always Financial Feminists, thanks for being here. Thank you for supporting the show. Thank you for supporting our mission and movements, and we’ll catch you next week. Thank you for listening to Financial Feminist, a Her First $100K podcast. Financial Feminist is hosted by me, Tori Dunlap, produced by Kristen Fields, Marketing and Administration by Karina Patel, Olivia Coning, Cherise Wade, Alina Helser, Paulina Isaac, Sophia Cohen, Valerie Oresko, Jack Coning, and Ana Alexandra. Research by Ariel Johnson, audio engineering by Austin Fields, promotional graphics by Mary Stratton, photography by Sarah Wolfe, and theme music by Jonah Cohen Sound. A huge thanks to the entire Her First $100K team and community for supporting the show. For more information about Financial Feminist, Her First $100K, our guests, episode show notes, and our upcoming book, also titled Financial Feminist, visit herfirst$100k.com.