My mom was afraid of spiders — still is — but she was so afraid of passing along her arachnophobia that she never once told me. Instead, despite being terrified on the inside, she used to simply pretend that she was fine and say, "Oh look, how cute."
And guess what? I'm not afraid of spiders. That was a beautiful gift from her to me.
In the same way, I encourage moms and dads who weren't good at math, or who struggled with math, or who were afraid of math to not tell your children. You don’t have to talk about it. And if your child needs help in math at some point, you can just say, "You know what? It looks different from how it was when I was a kid, let's get you some help," with a smile and enthusiasm.
The way that you find your voice, in my opinion, is to get over your fears and build up your confidence. Part of why I write children’s books is to help girls face what they're afraid of and overcome that fear. I want them to learn that, no matter what the challenge is, when you think you can't do something but you stick it out and see it through, you will prove to yourself that you're smarter than you thought. When you do that, you've gained something that no one can take away from you.
That kind of confidence — that they can accomplish even the hardest things they aren't sure they can do — is what I want for the girls reading my books. I want them to know that they can grow up to be women who are self-assured, who know their own self-worth, and who know how they deserve to be treated and settle for nothing less.
I was given all the encouragement in the world in school; I never once had a math teacher tell me, "You're probably not going to be good at this because you're female." (That did happen to me in science class, though, and the teacher was a woman.) But I just believed from a young age that I probably wouldn't be as good at math and science as boys.
And why? Because I grew up in this world in which we all live, where the stereotype is that girls aren’t as good as boys at certain things and we, as little kids, believe the stereotypes that we absorb. You don't have to have been told directly that you're not going to be good at math and science because you're a girl to feel that you won’t be.
I really do believe that the tide is shifting for women, though: Sure, there are still more male mathematicians and scientists out there, though more women are going into biology than men today. And I think that talking about the experiences of women and girls in STEM, like those who have been told, "You're not going to be good at this," can only help.
It’s been important to me to break those stereotypes, both personally and through the books. I want girls say, Oh wait a minute. Look at this person who is an actress and she does all the glamorous selfies and all the rest of it on social media, and yet she studied mathematics and she loves math, and maybe I want to be smart after all.
I want to give girls something aspirational that empowers them to be whomever they want to be, and not to succumb to the artificial boundaries or expectations put on us. We all get to define who we want to be. If you want to wear dresses, great; if you want to wear overalls, great. Do whatever you want, but know that being smart and working on your brain will be good for you, too, no matter what.
It's always been a bumpy road for women and I'm sure it will continue to be. I've been writing books to help inspire girls and women in mathematics and to embrace their smarts for 10 years, so I know it’s a slow shift and can take a while. But the emails and Tweets that I get just make my whole day. To have a girl or a young woman tell me, "You changed me. I now feel confident in myself in math and I'm not afraid of being a smart girl" — that's why I do this.
As told to THINK editor Megan Carpentier, edited and condensed for clarity.
Danica McKellar is an actor and an internationally-recognized mathematician and advocate for math education. A summa cum laude graduate of UCLA with a degree in mathematics, Danica has been honored in Britain’s esteemed Journal of Physics and the New York Times for her work, most notably for her role as co-author of a ground-breaking mathematical physics theorem which bears her name. Her entire line of books can be found at mckellarmath.com.