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Phylecia Jones: How Can We Encourage Girls To Keep Pursuing Math?

Mar 15, 2019
Originally published on March 15, 2019 4:57 pm

Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode Don't Fear Math.

About Phylecia Jones's TED Talk

Why do so many teen girls lose interest in math? Phylecia Jones explores how we can get more women involved in STEM by starting with a simple idea: tell every girl in your life she's great at math.

About Phylecia Jones

Phylecia Jones is a budget specialist and creator of Keep Up With Mrs. Jones, a company that provides clients with financial advice. She also hosts a podcast, Ask the Budgetologist.

Before becoming an entrepreneur, Jones launched her career as a computer scientist for the U.S. Navy serving sailors and soldiers across the globe. She has a bachelor's degree in Computer Science, and a master's degree in Systems Engineering.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. So a couple months ago, a 911 operator in Lafayette, Ind., got a pretty unusual phone call.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONIA BUNDY: Nine one one.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Hi. I had a really bad day, and I just have tons of homework.

RAZ: Fortunately, it was a quiet day there, so the operator kept talking to the caller. It was a kid who was stressed out about math.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUNDY: So what are you learning in math? What's so difficult?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Fractions.

BUNDY: Is there a problem you want me to help you?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Yeah. What's 3/4 plus 1/4?

RAZ: And eventually...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUNDY: So what's three plus one?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Four.

BUNDY: So then four over four is what?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: One.

BUNDY: Yeah. Good job.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I'm sorry for calling you, but...

BUNDY: No, you're...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: ...I really needed help.

BUNDY: You're fine. We're always here to help.

RAZ: OK. So we don't recommend calling 911 about a challenging math problem. But most of us have struggled with math before. And at some point, you might have even said, I'm just not a math person. So today on the show, we're going to dig into some of the myths we tell ourselves about math, why so many of us are afraid of it or even hate it, and why we should think about rewiring the way we think about it because math is woven into the patterns of the universe. It allows us to understand big ideas. And in a way, it's kind of beautiful.

PHYLECIA JONES: I actually do see the beauty in math. And I see it in so many ways because it can literally change your life if you embrace it. It can take you from one place, change your economics, change your family, change how you see the world and how you interact with it. And I just find it so beautiful.

RAZ: This is Phylecia Jones. She's a former computer scientist from the U.S. Navy.

So I think it's fair to say that you're pretty good at math. Like, it - you can handle math pretty well.

JONES: Yeah, I'm pretty good. I'm pretty good. Not late at night, but I'm pretty good.

RAZ: And is it fair to say that you kind of like it?

JONES: I do like it. Math is so much fun to me. And I actually quit my job and started money coaching with people, and that's when I came - happened upon this idea that some people don't think they're good at math.

RAZ: And that kind of thinking tends to start pretty young. And Phylecia's noticed that oftentimes the kids who think they're bad at math are girls. So she decided to do something about it. Here's more from Phylecia Jones on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

JONES: Did you know that 15 is the exact age a girl loses interest in math? And little does this 15-year-old know is that she's kicked off a domino effect of companies, organizations, institutions and governments, even dining room conversations, asking one simple question - how do we get more girls interested in math? Now, I've been a part of these conversations over the last few months and had some heated debates with friends, and what I've realized is that no one has an answer. And this is kind of sad to me because I see the world through math-colored glasses, and I can see that it can take you anywhere that you want to go, and this is why I care.

And you might be saying, OK, Phylecia, that's a good idea. Yay, math. Let's all get on board. And you might be saying in the back of your mind, like, why do I really care? Here's why you care - because Katherine Johnson was a 15-year-old girl who later became a woman and who was encouraged by her parents, and she helped us to get to the moon.

(APPLAUSE)

JONES: Patricia Bath was a 15-year-old girl who later pursued medicine, and because she liked to tinker, she created a device that corrected cataracts so people could have vision. But there is a 15-year-old girl that might be sitting next to you or in your house right now that saw her parents go through the Great Recession and never fully recover and is sitting on an idea that can change how we manage finances, but she's about to close the book on it because she's not getting the one thing that we can do - and that is support.

Now, we know it takes a village to raise a child, but it takes a community of hardcore supporters who give a damn to make sure a young girl stays encouraged and has confidence to pursue a career in math.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: So you have a very simple, elegant idea to start to change this paradigm, which I love. It's so simple. It's a big idea. What is it? Explain what it is.

JONES: I want us to tell every girl, every woman in our life that she is great at math. And look them in the eye, even if they start getting that little cringe where they say, no, I'm not great at it. I don't like numbers. I try to tell people, stop, you are actually really good at math. We just need to reprogram you.

RAZ: Yeah. I mean, people - like, many, many people and many kids think that they just don't have a math brain, right? They either do or they don't. And what it sounds like what you're saying is, that's not the way to talk about this. It's that everybody has a math brain. Some people are going to take more - you know, take to it more easily or faster, but that everybody actually can understand this, like anyone can learn a language.

JONES: Yeah, anyone can learn how to do math. We just need to make sure we don't discourage people from learning math. And no, not everyone is going to end up like a Katherine Johnson and doing math to get us to the moon. But even with some of the basic ideas, we need to just make sure that people know that they're great at it because I truly believe that when people know that they're good at something, they will have the confidence to pursue some of these careers that are out there that are running our world.

I mean, technology, science, engineering is running our world. It can really change how we interact with it if there are no women around in technology. That's kind of scary for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF TEDx TALK)

JONES: You know what's at risk - that if you don't do something, that if we don't do something, we run the risk of women being unwanted when it comes to the future innovation that can change our world. Are you willing to risk that? For every woman that says that she's not great at math, I want you to make sure she stands on her two feet. And you look her in the eye and you say, yes, you are, and I believe in you. For every 15-year-old that's about to close the book and say, you know what? Math is not my thing. Get her the support that she needs so that she can get better. For every 11-year-old that is jazzed about her coding club, her robotics team - here's the thing with those girls. They already know they're good at math. Our job is not to screw them up.

(LAUGHTER)

JONES: And from the moment that they are born, I just want you to do one simple thing. When they are in your arms, I just want you to remind them every day that all girls are great at math.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: That's Phylecia Jones. She's a former computer scientist. And today, Phylecia runs a business helping people manage their finances. You can find her full talk at ted.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.