Danica McKellar just released her fourth math book for girls, Girls Get Curves. It’s designed to teach girls math but also confidence so that they don’t shy away from pursuing it in college or their careers beyond. Playing off the geometry focus, the book also tries to teach young women how to have a positive body image in a world that tries to keep them from it. McKellar speaks to BuzzFeed Shift about why women are so underrepresented in mathematics, her own experiences in the field, and more.
The number of women pursuing careers in math and science — or simply exhibiting talent in these fields — has become a hot topic. Why do you think that is?
Girls and boys score the same in high school on average in math — most people don’t realize that. Most people think that girls don’t score as well as boys, but that’s not the issue — the issue is girls’ confidence. The way they see themselves is different from boys, so that results in girls dropping math as soon as they can because they think they can’t handle it. Because they’re dropping these courses they’re not pursuing these careers.
I had a friend in college who wanted to be a doctor and she was so intimidated by the number of calculus classes she was going to have to take that she dropped out. My real goal is for women to come away from my books knowing they can handle the math, they can do it. They’re master of their domain — “I got this.”
Why do you think girls and women have this confidence problem?
It’s got to be from all the messages we get from society all day long. People tell us our value lies in our appearance, and that’s what we need to focus on instead of realizing hair and makeup and fashion — that’s all fun but it’s really decoration. It’s not where our value lies, and it’s not where our self-esteem should come from, because that’s extremely damaging. Girls forget that the things that are going to make them feel happy and fulfilled are the things you do from the inside — like succeeding in math. If you look at a really hard math problem, and you persevere and you do solve it, then you build internal fortitude, and you see that you’re stronger and smarter.
And why do you think high grades don’t give girls more confidence in their mathematical skills?
I wish I had a better answer as to the question of why girls think they can’t handle it. I scored a 5 on the AP BC calculus test in high school, and I got to college and if I think back to who I thought could handle a college math class, I thought a guy — yeah, that person looks the part. I’m so glad I went for it anyway because I scored at the top of the class and my professor came to me and said, “Who are you?” All of the professors didn’t have televisions [and know The Wonder Years], but I was able to define myself differently.
Do you think that was important to your success as a mathematician?
I couldn’t believe I scored the best of the 160 people on the midterm. And I said maybe it doesn’t matter if I “look the part” or not — maybe I can do this. So my books are designed to break the stereotype of who’s good at math. That person might look like Einstein or the person who can be on the cover of a magazine. As human beings we are so prone to suggestion. You give men and women a test, and if you start off saying women score about the same as men, they do about the same. If you tell women they won’t do the same on the test, they won’t do the same on the test.
Girls can define themselves however they want to and they don’t have to choose between being the fabulous cute girl and the smart girl. You can build your smarts by doing things like math — by doing things like that you can be more fabulous.
How did you feel about that op-ed in the Times arguing that algebra isn’t necessary?
Oh my God, it was absolutely ridiculous. (I read a bunch of rebuttal pieces to it so I might be quoting some of their ideas, but seriously, they made some good arguments.) But, do we use European history every day? Do we use English literature every day? Most of the stuff you study in school you don’t use every day. He’s making the argument that you may as well cut off education after sixth grade. The other thing is by not making algebra available and required for everybody, you start creating these new class lines — the educated and not educated — where only the people who can afford it can have access.
I couldn’t believe the fact that he was discounting learning how to problem solve. Learning how to debate or learning how to make a good argument — these are the reasons we study things in school. It’s not because we think we can memorize that piece of literature — it’s to teach kids how to make a good argument. In math you learn how to problem solve. That’s why you study algebra, that’s why you need it and that’s why you don’t stop at remedial math.
Do you think there’s still a lingering perception that attractive women aren’t smart? That being interested in one’s appearance can’t coexist with intelligence?
I think about myself and my own perceptions about that. If you see a woman who spent a lot of time on her appearance, maybe you think she didn’t have time for anything else. In terms of a woman who’s naturally beautiful, I think it’s cruel to pigeon-hole people and think they can only be one or the other. If you’re a 14-year-old girl and you have to choose between being pretty and the smart one? Most girls are going to choose the one that’s going to make them popular (pretty).
Part of the reason we don’t see hot women being portrayed on TV as mathematicians and scientists is because Hollywood wants to take shortcuts. If a character comes in that’s supposed to be a scientist, they go for someone who looks like Einstein. If you have a beautiful woman come in that’s a scientist, it’s going to take more time to explain to the audience. I don’t think Hollywood’s just evil and trying to keep women down, I think they just tend to look for an easy way out.
After being a child star on the Wonder Years, how did you avoid burnout when you went onto college?
I have to give credit to my parents for keeping me really gorounded and for never over-emphasizing the importance of being on the Wonder Years. I was going to the Wonder Years but I was also going to high school, and I had chores when I came home. I never had a question about whether I was going to go to college or not. The high school I went to was Harvard Westlake and nobody there didn’t go to college. So when I got to UCLA, I said the Wonder Years is over, and I thought what will I do now? I wanted to be a film major but then took the math class and I just got hooked. I thought, I love this, I’m good at it, and I was sort of high off that. For a while I thought I might become a professor myself but I did find that kind of work a bit isolating. When you’re writing a professional math paper only a few people are going to read it. And I get to go out and talk to a lot of people about math and it’s just a different life.
How do you feel about photoshopping in media? It’s something that’s constantly debated.
In the book I talk about how we can’t compare ourselves to the images in magazines — the’y’re not real. If you want to aspire to look like somebody, aspire to look like somebody you have in your real life.
I also have a section about how advertisements are designed to make us feel bad about ourselves, because if we’re not happy about how we look we don’t need their products. So it’s in the advertisers’ best interest to make us look less than. It’s really damaging — it’s damaging to girls and it’s not going to stop. So I’m hoping to give them a different perspective.”