From the Vault: ‘Math Anxiety’ by Sheila Tobias (September 1976)

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Ms. magazine September 1976 cover.

Editor’s note: In 1976, in the pages of Ms. magazine, Sheila Tobias explored the topic of “math anxiety”: the tendency of women to avoid mathematics as it became more difficult, which stemmed, in part, from gender roles in academia. Tobias died on July 6, 2021, in a Tucson nursing home following complications from a fall. Her death was not widely reported at the time. Author Clara Bingham has brought this news to light after attempting to contact Tobias for an oral history project.

Gloria Steinem considered Tobias’ article to be “one of the most important pieces we’ve ever published.” Here find a scanned PDF of the original “Math Anxiety” article, as it appeared in Ms. in 1976. Below are a few of our favorite excerpts:

We had been noticing great reluctance on the part of women college students to take courses that required or might require at a later stage either calculus or heavy use of algebra or rigorous statistics. Some of our students were even contemplating changing their majors to avoid math prerequisites. …

They wanted to work with people, they said plaintively. At first we accepted this at face value, understanding that having been socialized as women, they felt at home in the helping professions.

Of the entering class at Berkeley in 1973, [feminist sociologist] Sells reported that 57 percent of the males brought with them four years of high school math, but only 8 percent of the entering females had the same preparation. Thus, 92 percent of the women in the first-year class were not even eligible to take any calculus or intermediate level statistics course.

The problem was far more serious—growing out of a culture that makes math ability a masculine attribute, that punishes women for doing well in math, and that soothes the slower math learner by telling her she does not have a “mathematical mind.”

Tobias expanded the 1976 article into a 1978 book.

Math anxiety is a serious handicap. It is handed down from mother to daughter with father’s amused indulgence. (“Your mother never could balance a checkbook,” he says fondly.) Then, when an employer or a colleague recognizes it in an employee, she can be barred from any endeavor or new assignment by the threat that the new job will involve some work with “data or tables or functions.”

It is reported that through elementary school, girls and boys tend to think that their own sex does better in all subjects; by high school both boys and girls assume that boys do better in math.

From a feminist perspective, mathematical literacy is a way to demystify the world. We feel that if we could develop a cure for math anxiety and ‘bottle’ it for women engaged in self-help activities, these women would show increased self-reliance and with it increased self-esteem.

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Sheila Tobias (1935-2021) was Associate Provost of Wesleyan University and co-director of the Math Clinic at Wesleyan University. Most of her scholarly work focused on the idea of "math anxiety," as seen in her 1978 book, "Overcoming Math Anxiety."