In a competitive global market, careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are continuing their meteoric rise in strategic importance, making America’s long-documented math phobia more of a liability than ever. If math-capable students shy away from careers involving calculation and computation, that weakens the U.S. workforce and hurts its position in a global economy.
Math anxiety is a nagging fear of or apprehension about math, and it affects the classes college students select and the careers they pursue. As a cognitive scientist, I am concerned that it prevents students who otherwise have the ability to succeed in STEM from doing so. And as president of Barnard College, a school focused on empowering young women, I also worry about the fact that girls and women tend to have more math anxiety and are less confident in their math abilities than boys, which probably helps explain why they continue to be underrepresented in many STEM fields.
Math anxiety starts at a young age for both sexes. My research team and I found that as early as first and second grade, nearly half of students indicate they are “moderately nervous” to “very, very nervous” about math. In the United States, it is estimated that a quarter of students attending four-year colleges experience moderate or high levels of math anxiety. And one study found that, for 11% of American university students, the anxiety is severe enough to warrant counseling.