Zoe Burt, a wealth advisor turned financial-content specialist, doesn't think she's good at math.
To Burt, the viral TikTok trend #girlmath reiterates the stereotype that women are bad at math.
Burt breaks down why she finds the trend damaging to women's confidence and financial well-being.
Women are constantly being reminded that math is not for them. Sometimes it's subliminal: a young woman scanning a sea of male faces in her STEM lecture. But often it's more overt, as with TikTok's most recent viral trend: "girl math."
The stereotype runs deeper than many of us even realize. As I was bombarded with #girlmath videos, it hit me that I don't consider myself to be "good" at math.
Though I didn't get a degree in STEM, I achieved high math grades in school. I studied hard to become a qualified wealth advisor in both the UK and the US — a first for my company at the time. But still, not good at math.
And then, even with a whole host of qualifications to confirm my financial and mathematical skills, when a friend saw my trading app he asked, "Does your boyfriend pick those investments for you?"
My boyfriend is an engineer, with no financial experience or qualifications. The comment had no malice but jolted me to the ingrained stereotype. Even when women are qualified and experienced in numbers, TikTok tells its audience that girls aren't mathematically capable.
What is 'girl math'?
The trend pokes fun at irresponsible personal-finance habits, dubbing them girl math. TikTok creators explain to their audiences that #girlmath means a purchase is free if you pay for it in cash you didn't remember you had, that not spending $50 on some shorts you wanted to buy is basically the same as making $50, and — most concerningly — that a purchase is free when it's on your credit card.
According to the Evening Standard, the trend emerged after a clip of hosts on the New Zealand radio station FVHZM went viral on TikTok. The clip was of the show's segment in which female listeners call in to justify their big purchases with the excuse of "girl maths."
The TikTok video spurred a wave of videos in response with women discussing how they justified spending that could be viewed as impractical.
Why girl math is a negative trend
Seemingly lighthearted, the hashtag plays into a damaging stereotype that women are bad at math.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies found in the UK in 2018 that more girls than boys received A-level certifications – but female students made up only 39% of math A-level results, and 22% of physics results.
The imbalance in women studying math-based topics is reiterated in higher education. UCAS data shows non-male students – participants who identified as women or nonbinary – only made up 31% of students studying mathematics at universities in the UK.
But historically, women have excelled in mathematics. Caroline Criado Perez, the author of "Invisible Women," highlights Dainan Tamina, a female mathematician who solved a complex problem that had eluded mathematicians for centuries in 1997. Shakuntala Devi holds a world record for performing the "fastest human computation."
We've got evidence of female mathematicians solving some of the world's greatest problems, yet #girlmath perpetuates the belief women just aren't mathsy.
Girl math doubles down on gendering lavish spending
The #girlmath trend focuses on "feminine" spending habits as lavish — another common stereotype of women and money management. A Guardian report found that 65% of financial articles directed at women characterized them as "splurgers" and sought to teach them how to rein in their wild feminine spending tendencies. This content usually revolves around childlike images of piggy banks, or simplified techniques of stretching budgets ever further.
Stereotyping women as having poor maths skills has a direct correlation with an unwillingness to engage with finances. A 2021 study in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization suggests the stereotype that women are less financially literate increases their anxiety around money.
In a 2021 study of 2,400 American adults making an annual income of $50,000 or more, Fidelity found only a third of female participants said they were confident in their ability to invest. Even though a Fidelity analysis of 5 million of its customers from a recent 10-year period found that women actually slightly outperformed men.
Then came 'boy math'
In response to #girlmath, the trend #boymath has also started to emerge. This trend appears to balance the perceived financial illiteracy scales. "Boy math" was defined by one X user as "paying $44 billion for a $25 billion company and, through business smarts and entrepreneurial know-how, turning it into an $8.8 billion company." The tweet alludes to Elon Musk's acquisition of Twitter, which he rebranded to X.
It is worth noting that the boy-math trend seems to illustrate illogical male behavior in a more general sense, whereas girl math is pointedly financial. When the trend's negative spotlight is directed toward men, it avoids conflating men with poor financial habits.
Women's financial literacy is an important issue
The girl-math trend brings women's financial literacy and investing into the limelight. Though the trend itself perpetuates negative stereotypes, it opens up discussions around gender and financial well-being.
Why do women cede financial responsibility to their male counterparts? Why do women save less on average? Most of these debates boil down to the gender pay gap and continued systemic misogyny. So, while TikTok trends like #girlmath may seem funny and fleeting, the stereotypes and systems they play into are not.
Zoe Burt is a financial content specialist for Female Invest. Burt is in charge of creating and presenting educational and inspirational webinars, video and written content for the UK and global audiences of Female Invest, on topics including investment funds, ISAs, pensions and property investment. She leads the platform's UK and global weekly market news roundup in podcast, video, and written format.
Prior to working for Female Invest, Burt worked as a wealth advisor.
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