The Gatekeepers: On Being a Woman in Mathematics

This post originally appeared in Education Week.

This month, I’ll be featuring the voices of female educators in honor of Women’s History Month. More written about this is here.

Guest post by Stephanie Capen.

I struggled with mathematics throughout most of my formal education, but I don’t entirely know why. It’s hard for me to look back and decipher exact reasons.

I always had a very black-and-white perception of mathematics: an answer is either right or it is wrong. I don’t know if I invented this perception in my own mind, or if it was influenced by the way that mathematics was presented to and portrayed around me. Still, this belief was often coupled with the idea that you are either “good” at math, or you are not. I was frequently wrong, and therefore, not “good” at math.

Every math teacher I had from 6th grade through college was male. Every school year I would sit down in my math class and see the face of a man as a gatekeeper to my success in the class. I would often wonder why only men taught math, and I learned that some of my friends often wondered the same. My male friends loved saying that it was because men are better at math.

Of course, this was said in jest. I would laugh, but part of me believed them. I mean, you can’t argue with the numbers, right?. ALL our math teachers were men. Women, I guessed, were better at other things like language or history. In high school, I accepted that I would never be “good” at math and just needed to get through until college. Then, I would never have to take a math class again.

I started college as a history major. I had always done well in history and so it made sense. My first semester, I took an introductory astronomy course for a required lab credit and loved it. I was at a small, liberal arts college and, unfortunately, there was no astronomy program, my astronomy professor recommended physics.

Physics, really?

He assured me there would be lots of opportunities to study astronomy if I pursued physics and he told me I would be fine as long as I was “good” at math. There it was. Math had crept back into my life and if I wanted to pursue physics I would have to confront my lack of confidence in mathematics. I had to break my resolve that I wasn’t good at math.

And so, I did.

It wasn’t easy. In fact, it was incredibly hard. I spent hours of my time in college in the library, study groups, and buried under books in my dorm room. Other hours were spent wondering if I had made a mistake, if I would ever feel good enough. Four years later I graduated.

I learned a lot about both math and myself in those four years. I realized that I am good at math. I learned that men and women alike can succeed in mathematics related courses and fields.

And I learned that math is not so black-and-white. There are many ways of learning and doing math. We come to math with rich, diverse experiences from the real world, and mathematics is the thread of all those experiences. We can use our everyday language to describe mathematics, and to construct and make sense of mathematical ideas.


Today, I am a high school mathematics teacher and I am still a woman. My hope is that my classroom is a space where young women are inspired, and the young men learn to see their female classmates sitting next to them at the table as equals, now and in years to come. My hope is that my classroom is a space where all students feel they can be successful and that their ideas are valid and important.

I hope my students see that there are multiple ways of knowing and approaching a problem. I hope they don’t see my face as the gatekeeper to their success, but find their success within themselves. I hope they see how incredible they are and I hope they find themselves on the endless road of possibilities awaiting them. 

Image via Reta Youkhana and University Laboratory School

steph.jpgStephanie Capen is a high school mathematics teacher at the University Laboratory School in Honolulu, Hawaii. She is currently pursuing her doctorate in Educational Foundations from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She is most recently engaged in research projects focused on student development of geometric reasoning and the development of algebraic concepts through geometry. Her dissertation work focuses on teachers’ perceptions of professionalism.



Find Christina online:twitter.jpg : @biblio_philefb.jpg : /christinawrites
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