Not “too silly”, not “too girlish” for maths

Paula Rowińska

Paula Rowińska

I'm a PhD student of Mathematics of Planet Earth CDT, based at Imperial College London. My research focuses on renewable energy prices (so if your electricity bills are too high, talk to me 😉 I believe that if one understands a concept, she can explain it to any audience. So if you get lost, it's my fault - and please don't hesitate to contact me!
Paula Rowińska

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– “What do you study?”
– “I’m doing PhD in maths.”
– “Wow, you must be so smart! And you’re a girl!”

I hear it so often. I’ve done a small amount of research and my results are sad: my friends studying linguistics, architecture,medicine and so on don’t get such a routine reaction. Why is it the case? Where does the assumption that a mathematician must be smarter than the rest of the society come from? And why are we still surprised that women are capable of pursuing this career path?

I had thought the same before I decided to study mathematics. It shouldn’t be surprising. As a ten-year-old I fell in love with John Nash (or rather Russell Crowe starring in A Beautiful Mind). Than I laughed at how nerdy and out of touch with life the characters of The Big Bang Theory were. Media portrayal of mathematicians didn’t make my decision to study maths easy. Would I become like them? Would I spend my adulthood bending over equations, unable to engage in social life and relationships?

Moreover, I was afraid that I wasn’t smart enough, that one needs a brain of Gauss or Newton to be a mathematician. But I took up the challenge and… I’m still here! Even though my IQ isn’t high enough to join Mensa. Even though I’m a GIRL!

Einstein nailed it: Genius is 1% talent and 99% percent hard work.During my undergraduate studies I’ve seen apparent geniuses being expelled from the university because talent and intelligence aren’t enough. Nobody is born with maths knowledge, it takes years of hard work to gain enough experience  experience to earn a diploma.

I believe that talent is helpful but what counts most is your interest in whatever you’re doing and determination to work hard. Although if you truly enjoy maths, the work might be turn in to fun, as crazy as that sounds. I’m not claiming that I loved every evening spent going through some complicated proofs (especially the ones beginning with the words “It’s obvious that…” – maybe it’s obvious for you, author, but it isn’t for me!). But some problems and ideas were really my thing. I even kept reading about them after the exam!

Ok, but what about the girl part? Is mathematician really a job just for men? Does the gender matter at all? Personally, I get very annoyed when someone admires me for studying maths despite being a female. There’s no correlation between the excellence in mathematical subjects and gender. Neither positive nor negative – I don’t agree with the common statement that girls are more hard-working so they get better results than “smart but lazy” boys.

Unfortunately not everyone agrees. Last year I went to my first mathematical conference. The organiser (male) came to me the day before my talk just to say something along the lines of: You don’t need to worry about your talk. You’re a women, you can’t be as good in mathematics as your male colleagues so nobody expects you to give a good talk. I was shocked! I did well because my research was of good quality, not because of or despite the fact that I’m a woman.

To sum up, if you feel that you like maths (or some parts of it) but are afraid of pursuing the degree because you’re not a genius or (even worse!) you’re a girl, don’t hesitate to give it a try! You have every chance of success and you don’t want to regret not having done something you really wanted. It’s far better to regret something you’ve done!

If you’re interested in articles about the need (or lack of need) for extraordinary mind to do mathematics, take a look at:


8 thoughts on “Not “too silly”, not “too girlish” for maths”

  1. Great points. And I’ve been really dumb about this. When people have said “you must be really clever” I didn’t realise that they were mostly saying out because I was female.

    1. I might be wrong, it’s just my personal opinion. However, I don’t think my male friends who are also mathematicians hear this as often as we do…

  2. If mathematics is your passion then nothing and nobody can stop you. Just keep calm and do what you’re doing!

  3. This blog entry was great. It shows the human side to this idea of gender inequality that we do not always see when we are always bombarded with gender inequality-related statistics.

    I am a male and I often call myself a mathematician. I do hear ‘you must be really clever’ a lot (even though I am not clever). Gender inequality is a serious issue and this blog entry demonstrates that it lives on our doorstep. But, the last thing we need in society is for females to try to take the role of a victim. So, the next time somebody calls you clever, please do not feel like you have been the victim of gender inequality. Either take it as a compliment (modestly or proudly), or make a snide remark. But, please, do not create gender inequality where it does not exist. People compliment you as a mathematician because the average person thinks that mathematics is tantamount to wizardry.

    1. Thank you for your valuable comment. I’m sorry that my entry sounded like I’m creating gender inequality where it doesn’t exist. I acknowledge that it’s not always the case. However, plenty of time people actually added the “and you are a girl” part (or something similar). Is it gender inequality? I wouldn’t say so. It’s rather the assumption that there’s some difference between males and females doing mathematics, which isn’t necessarily wrong – but a bit disturbing. I hope I managed to clarify it:)

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