Shirley Conran: ‘Why do girls fear maths?

Shirley Conran at Langley Park School for Girls                                    photo: Anna Huix

She’s championed women in the boardroom and the bedroom, and now, at the age of 83, Shirley Conran - author, entrepreneur, all-round ‘Superwoman - has turned her focus on the classroom. She tells Peter Stanford why girls’ numeracy struggles don’t add up

‘What do you want to earn money at?’ Though 83, Shirley Conran is far too savvy to ask anything as old-fashioned as, ‘What do you want to be when you grown up?’ The bestselling novelist and self-proclaimed Superwoman-turned-maths education campaigner is sitting in the middle of a circle of 13- and 14-year-olds at Langley Park School for Girls, a non-selective academy in Bromley, south-east London.

She is here to do research – in her own inimitable fashion. So, no PowerPoint or flip charts. Instead, as she talks, she hands round a box of expensive chocolates, and peppers questions she really wants answered, about the links between maths, money and life expectations – the holy trinity, according to her campaigning organisation Maths Action – with others that show the girls she is on their wavelength. “What do you talk about with boys when you are not talking about sex,” she drops casually into the conversation to blushes and squeals. “At least, that is what I presume boys still want to talk about.”

It could be a confessional gathering of old friends, though Conran, a mother of two (product designer Sebastian and fashion designer Jasper) is plenty old enough to be their grandmother. “I have such a special affinity with girls on the edge of adulthood,” she reflects later, in her quiet purr. “They’re so hopeful about life, you just pray it turns out as they expect, while you know perfectly well that it can’t possibly.”

Kiera, one of the circle, starts elaborating about how she wants to be a cricketer and “part-time accountant”. Conran’s blue eyes light up. She couldn’t have scripted it better. “Well,” she says, “if you achieve your ambition to be a successful cricketer, you’ll have to be good at maths so you can keep an eye on every penny.”

“Don’t banks do that for you?” suggests Jess, whose ambitions are more directed towards the stage. Conran shakes her well-coiffed blonde bob. “Don’t think banks don’t make mistakes,” she counsels. “You need maths so you can check up on other people.”

Our national failings in maths are well known, with as many as one in five of us lacking even basic numeracy skills. But the particular focus of Conran’s crusade is how disproportionately this collective deficit has an impact on women and their prospects. As Maths Action’s strapline puts it, “Maths is a feminist issue.”

Analysis of the 2014 GCSE results shows that girls achieved more A* and A grades than boys in all the major subjects except maths. What’s more, twice as many boys as girls took maths and further maths A Level, while university maths courses remain predominantly male.

“It’s a problem that does not exist so much outside Britain,” laments Conran. “At least that is what the Department for Education tells me.” Since starting her campaign 14 years ago, she has had countless dealings with the Whitehall mandarins, and is currently an adviser to the previous Education Secretary Nicky Morgan on encouraging more girls to take on Stem (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects.

“I’m a terrific fan of Nicky,” she says, “but when I ask her officials the cause of the maths problem with girls, they don’t know. So I decided to find out.”

It is, at first glance, an unlikely task for the ex-wife of the designer, restaurateur and retailer Sir Terence Conran, who made her name – and, she is quick to stress, her own money – after their divorce, with the 1975 feminist bible Superwoman and its catchphrase “Life’s too short to stuff a mushroom”, then a series of novels, including the raunchy Lace, dubbed “the feminist bonkbuster”, later a celebrated 1980s TV mini-series. But for Conran herself, it is all of a piece. “I’ve been in the business of helping women for about 50 years and this is just one small part of it.”

Most of us might think that to make any real impact with a maths-education campaign, we would need to be expert at maths ourselves. But Conran likes to come at things from the outside. “I was in no way good at maths at school,” she recalls. She grew up in London and attended the elite St Paul’s Girl School before going on to art schools in Portsmouth then Chelsea. “I was a B, and at St Paul’s that was very low.”

Conran’s 1975 feminist bible Superwoman, whose catchphrase was: ‘Life’s too short to stuff a mushroom’

So where does she get her self-confidence in tackling an issue that seems to confound so many students, let alone experts? “Well, it’s back to my St Paul’s training and, in a way, growing up during the War: ‘Nobody’s doing it – well, you do it.’ I generally start when a situation presents itself to me.”

In the case of maths education, that situation arose as she was working on a book to encourage women to get on in business. “I was going to put in a chapter on maths and went to a bookshop to find the best books to crib. They were all terrible, condescending, and didn’t make things clear. I did my research, and when I was sure no one was doing anything [about the situation], I said to myself, ‘Well, Shirley, you’d better give it a go.’”

It was the same logic, she points out, that in the 1990s prompted her to set up the Work-Life Balance Trust, and sign up three million workers to the cause, long before ministers started championing flexible working. Conran likes to see herself as a catalyst. Once she has done enough to get something taken up with gusto by government, she fades into the background.

There is, though, nothing faded about her as she energetically hurries along the corridors of Langley Park. Her energy is remarkable, especially given that she suffers from ME, which periodically lays her low for weeks, sometimes months. “I did retire,” she confesses, “when I was 67, but only for three weeks because I can’t see any reason to retire as long as you are OK on your feet and in your brain.”

What also sets Conran apart is that she funds her causes herself. Most of her first decade tackling girls’ underperformance at maths was spent preparing Money Stuff, her lavishly illustrated, user-friendly interactive maths course, designed to appeal specifically to her target audience with its underlying theme that maths is the key to money and hence independent, fulfilled lives.

Launched in 2013, Money Stuff has been such a success that it is now available in various languages around the globe. Conran says she sank a “substantial six-figure sum” into it. And since it is available for nothing online, she won’t see a penny back. “Look, I’m 83. What else am I going to spend money on? My funds are not unlimited, but it is a subject I feel passionately about.”

As a stickler for detail, she insists on thorough market-testing of everything, which is why Money Stuff took 10 years to appear – and which explains her presence at Langley Park. Its girls’ track record in maths, says head Dr Anne Hudson, is outstanding compared with the national average, and it has been achieved by precisely the sort of innovative measures Conran is advocating.

On the walls outside the maths room are panels showing how maths leads to prestigious careers – including in engineering, where Britain lags behind nearly every other developed country in terms of female recruitment. In the classroom are posters that turn the often-heard girls’ complaint, “When will I ever needs maths?” into a rallying cry. And the school’s own in-house “careers academy” hammers home the message that, as Dr Hudson puts it bluntly, “You can’t do anything without maths.”

The underlying theme of Money Stuff, Conran’s lavishly illustrated, user-friendly interactive maths course, is that maths is the key to money and hence independent, fulfilled lives

So committed to shattering the myth that maths is “not a girls’ subject” is Langley Park that it has just got the go-ahead to set up a primary school on site that will specialise in maths. “We recognise,” says the head, “that there is a mindset in society that we need to tackle, which causes women and girls to find maths frightening.”

Talk of a “fear factor” brings us back to the question Conran has spent the past decade trying to answer. Why do so many girls decide maths is not for them? Often, I suggest, it is blamed on poor teaching. “I’m very pro-teachers,” Conran corrects me, “but not pro the way maths is being taught. Quite frankly, the people in charge of our maths education are responsible for the appalling mess it is in. The curriculum hasn’t really altered since 1870, as far as I can see, and maths textbooks remain slanted towards boys.”

But the real problem, she says, is much wider. “As I have been working on maths, there are all sorts of things I have seen along the way, like the mothers who say, ‘I was never any good at maths and that’s why my Pamela isn’t.’ When I challenge them, I just get reproachful looks.”

Typically undaunted, she commissioned a report, “The Fear Factor: Maths Anxiety in Girls and Women”, from the anthropologist Dr Samantha Callan, of the Centre for Social Justice. Its conclusion – announced at the House of Lords by Nicky Morgan in September – is that there is a “maths myth” that ability in the subject is “innately male”.

It all comes back, explain Conran, to the patriarchy she has spent her life battling. “There is no reason why everyone shouldn’t be able to do maths, because maths is easy. I normally never use the word ‘easy’, because nearly always for someone it isn’t easy. But maths is one of the easiest subjects because it is logical. And children are logical. It’s just that girls in particular get screwed up about it. It all comes down to entrenched attitudes. Maths anxiety in girls is at base patriarchal, even if it is often mothers passing it on to daughters.”

So what should they be telling their female offspring instead? “That they can’t just sit through maths lessons until they’ve finished studying and then forget about it. That there are two supports they will need in life: one is their bra, the other is maths. The first day they leave school is the first day they’ll need maths.”

It’s quite a rallying cry. Getting it across – the Callan report suggests a major ad campaign – will be a big undertaking, accepts Conran, and one better suited to the government’s purse than her own. The moment is approaching, she says, when she will hand over the baton to ministers. But not quite yet, she adds, as she returns to her gaggle of Year 9s and the box of chocolates.

For more:

Six Money Survival Tips

1. a) From now on, take ALL responsibility for your financial future. Don’t let anyone talk you out of it, especially someone you love. This is simple, but it takes time.

1. b) Don’t rely on ANYONE ELSE in financial matters. Not your mum, dad, boyfriend, girlfriend, accountant. NO-ONE.

2. Allocate a specific time, say two hours on the first Saturday morning each month. Your money and your peace of mind will depend on this adult habit.

3. Always check – by email if possible – that what someone says they will do is actually done ON TIME. Monitor anything that is to be done by someone else. Monitoring is polite nagging and you will quickly find out that it is ESSENTIAL.

Nagging is the repetition of a question that someone doesn’t want to answer.

a) Together, fix a day for the job to be completed.

b) Send an email before the due date as a reminder.

c) Send an email the day after the due date, to ask if they’ve done it.

d) If the answer is anything but YES, repeat this procedure until the job is done.

4. Keep a scribbled note of any financial meetings. Don’t rely on the person who is supposed to be taking notes.

5. Years ago, I asked a Texan oil zillionaire what was the most useful financial tip he had ever been given. This is what he told me and I’m grateful.

Date notes. Date everything you write – top right-hand corner – and always include the year.

6. Always check your bank balance. Banks make errors.

I wrote this for the financial literacy course for 1st year university students in Newcastle.

Why Can’t a Woman be More Like a Man?

Personal Ability
- A long phone conversation lasts 30 seconds.
- One mood can fit his entire life.
- He expects astonished approval for the smallest act of consideration, such as tidying the fridge.
- He doesn’t need a mechanical jar opener.
- Car mechanics tell him the truth.
- When consulting a road map and driving from North to South, he can say, “Turn left,” with accuracy.

- He will never be pregnant.
- When meeting people, they never stare at his chest.
- He never has a bad hair day.
- The same hairstyle lasts for years, perhaps decades.
- He can disguise a double chin with a beard. A moustache is optional.
- All his underwear costs under £10, comes in one pack, and he doesn’t need to try it on in the store.
- His new shoes were not designed by the Spanish Inquisition.
- Sneakers, moccasins, black formal…who needs more shoes?
- One wallet lasts a lifetime.
- With maybe seven pockets in his jacket and pants, no handbag needed.
- His wardrobe fits into a wardrobe.

- Weddings plan themselves.
- Family holidays plan themselves.
- A holiday requires only one suitcase.
- A weekend wardrobe fits in a carry-on bag.
- He can play with toys all his life. It is accessing his inner child. Adorable.
- He cannot be expected to remember his wedding anniversary or his wife’s birthday, unless he has a PA.
- He never worries about the nutritional value of the supper he’s just cooked; he just expects applause.
- If he says sorrowfully, “I know I’m a bad father,” he expects this to be treated as an honourable excuse.

- The world is his urinal.

- At work, he never feels guilty.
- Same work, more pay.

Note: My brother sent me this. I’ve tweaked it a bit.

The Last Taboo


It is the last taboo.

Talking about it is not something a nice girl does in mixed company, it is indelicate, unfeminine.

Many women have been raised to think that men are “naturally good” at money matters and women are “naturally bad”. It’s not said directly, little girls pick up this idea by osmosis.

Outside the home, for a man to say he wants more money or ask for a raise is acceptable; it goes with the hairy chest and the company car. But many women feel uncomfortable about asking for money and they don’t want to think about why. Because they’ve been raised to believe…what? That discussing money will grow hairs on their chest? Or that, being a woman, they don’t deserve more money?

I’ve spent the last fourteen years researching women’s attitudes to money and maths. I asked many women if they would like to be richer.

To my surprise, they all said, “No.” Just like that.

I asked, “You really mean that you wouldn’t like more money?”

They said, “Well, just a little bit more.”

That’s the trouble. Women think small scale about money, in terms of housekeeping or being able to order a new kitchen, rather than being able to give a tablet computer to a quarter of a million people, as British entrepreneur, Felix Dennis, did.

Women need to think bigger, and women need to learn more about money – because they don’t get enough of it.

Why do women need more money?
Because a woman might – sometimes unexpectedly – find she is the main earner in her family. Marriage isn’t always forever, accidents can happen, jobs disappear.

Because the average woman earns up to 20% less than a man who is doing the same job, so no wonder some men still regard women as inferior to themselves.

Because children are the most expensive modern luxury; it costs more to run a child than it does to run a Bentley. To raise an average child costs over £227,000 – and that doesn’t include the cost of your time.

Zillionaires will tell you there’s only one thing more valuable that money and that is your time – although money can buy you quite a lot of that, given a home help, a nanny, a private jet.

There’s another reason that women need more money. Money brings independence, respect…and power.

Exactly what is power?
Many women don’t’ understand what “power” means, or why they should want it. But in the nursery, power is called, “getting your own way”.

In nature, power means physical strength. Rightly or wrongly, money has replaced physical strength as our modern measure of power; it defines our position in the pecking order, which rules our lives as inexorably as physical power does in the animal world of lions, stags or fighting cocks.

In history, think of Sixteenth Century portraits of the bejewelled Queen Elizabeth I of England in her gem-laden gowns. What is the PR pitch of those portraits? Wealth, status, power.

So what’s not to like about having power?

Purse power
The power of the purse means being able to get things done without using your own hands. Sweep that floor, dig that pond, catch that plane and privately educate your children to top status level or pay for a private tutor.

The power of the purse can mean privacy, having a room of your own in which to discover yourself, plus time enough to do it.

Money creates the power to do things: to train your ability to act, to sing, to dance, to hit, throw or kick a ball – and to entrance people with your performance.

You need money to study seriously, to develop ideas, to make discoveries that will improve your town, your country, your planet.

You need money to build a workshop, a church hall, a museum or a university.

Investment money produces inventions that will improve people’s lives, as did the steam engine, the hearing-aid and the bra.

The really powerful women I know – the big earners – don’t waste their lives lying in bed all morning or watching afternoon TV until it changes to evening TV, or drinking themselves stupid (well, not often). They get things done. They improve their business, their community and other people’s lives. They are big spenders. They know how to get power and how to use it.

This is why, as a sex, other women need to raise the bar, throw away the constricting whalebone corset that is our out-dated attitude to money, lift our focus above the housekeeping purse, stop being frightened of the big noughts, dump lack-of-confidence,  get more ambitious about money, and learn more about how to make more. Because, life is too short to be short of money.

Want a little bit, or a lot more money? Take a look at MONEY STUFF.

The national debt and the budget overspend

Shirley Conran

Political smokescreen-speak may well confuse two vital  items:
the national debt and the budget overspend.

The national debt is the total amount of money that Britain owed to its lenders and which needs to be repaid.

Every time the Government spends more money than it receives in taxes, there is a budget overspend – the amount that needs to be borrowed to bridge the gap for that year’s spending.

Every time the Government overspends, the amount of money borrowed will add to the national debt.

Whatever Government we get, it will do what it tells us not to do: it will recklessly overspend, with no clear, explicit plan for repayment, and it will try to conceal this with political smokescreen-speak.

Mother Stuff

Today, if I were twenty, I would decide not to have children because I would not want the stressful and expensive life of today’s working mother. It can cost more to run a child than it costs to run a Rolls Royce. Childcare is not tax deductible as an expense of working, like a chauffeur or a secretary. But without childcare, a mother – and some fathers – cannot work.

I would not want to spend their evenings and weekends doing the system – support work that children involve. (Statistically, mothers do far more work in the home than fathers.)

I would not want to give up – for 18 years – holidays, evenings out, most new clothes, hairdos, personal interests and the satisfaction of work and pay in order to care non-stop for someone I have not met… a baby.

I love my two sons passionately. I don’t regret the two children I had – but neither do I regret the other children that I didn’t have.

Shirley Conran, 2012

Money Stuff by Shirley ConranDOWNLOAD NOW





MONEY STUFF is a do-it-yourself 4-step maths course for Real Life. It’s an interactive ebook for iPad. And it’s FREE

MONEY STUFF can be used as a starter or as a refresher, a complete maths course for anyone that follows the GCSE syllabus. Successfully tested over two years in school, university and by working women, MONEY STUFF gets good feedback from students, teachers, educational professionals and mothers who want to help with homework.

MONEY STUFF connects maths to Real Life. For example: How to split a pizza bill, understand mobile phone offers and fuel tariffs.

MONEY STUFF also relates maths to real ambitions. Want to be famous? Use MONEY STUFF to figure your royalties, check that people aren’t ripping you off… Want to run a restaurant? You’ll need numbers for recipe quantities, you’ll need to understand profit margins, so you know how much to charge.

‘I am sure students will become confident in mathematics and never again say, ‘I can’t do maths’.
Keith Pledger, Former Chair of Examiners at Edexcel
(Keith writes more on

‘Shirley Conran has brought maths alive and made it relevant. This will be a must-have book for everyone who wants to make a success of life.’
Caroline Shott, CEO, The Learning Skills Foundation


Money Stuff International editionRecently I attacked  the final knotty problems to prepare the Money Stuff international $ edition, which is metric, for readers in the USA and the rest of the world. This is only available outside the UK because of Apple’s copyright situation.

The last problems are always the ones that take three times longer than you expect. Because I was dreading them, my son Sebastian said that I should take five of the problems, put them in any order and do the one at the top!

I’ve always worked in businesses where priorities change constantly and many find this difficult to deal with. My mantra has always been “do what’s urgent and leave the rest till later” – this week ‘later’ came, and I’ve been sorting out my office – all the filing and even organising the pens!

By Susan Miller

The look of joy on a teenager’s face – often after being told they are useless at maths and don’t pay enough attention in class – when after a couple of hours of efficient teaching it dawns on them that they can do maths is “priceless”.

That look is why best-selling author, journalist and world-class communicator Shirley Conran, aged 85, has dedicated the last fourteen years to maths education. This year she founded The Maths Anxiety Trust. She is sure of the importance of the Trust’s efforts. “According to the American National Science Foundation 80% of the jobs created in the next decade will require maths and science skills.”

A 2012 article in the Guardian reported that two million people in the UK suffer from Maths Anxiety, described as a feeling of fear about maths. As Conran points out: “If it was smallpox, that would be a national disaster and there would be immediate action to stamp it out.”

Conran believes that schoolchildren who think they are no good at maths become adults who are labelled as stupid – by themselves and others. A possible pattern emerges as they pass on their Maths Anxiety to their children. Conran says it’s not the parent or child who is wrong but the teaching of maths in the UK. “A good mathematician is not always a good maths teacher,” she says.

Conran’s work started in 2004; in a bookshop, Conran searched for a good maths textbook for her god-daughter: she did not find one. “The instructions were inadequate, the author did not communicate well and the writing was dull – so those text books did not engage the reader,” she says.

After further research, she decided to write her own a maths course. She wrote and – extensively tested – MONEY STUFF, an interactive eBook maths course for girls (on iPad), which does not need a teacher and costs nothing – it is free.

Also in 2004, Conran also founded a small voluntary group, Maths Action, to improve maths performance in Britain. In 2015, with a small group of friends, she decided to focus on Maths Anxiety because this not only affects individuals but UK productivity: members of the Confederation for British Industry complain that at workforce entry level, they pay over a £billion per year for remedial courses in maths and English.

 In 2016 Shirley Conran was presented with an Honorary Fellowship by University College London (UCL ].

The author of books, such as Superwoman and Lace, that have sold round the world in millions, Conran funds her own campaign work with money made from her best-selling books.   She is now working on Maths Anxiety: The Handbook for Parents and Teachers.

This year, Maths Anxiety Day will be held on 13 June 2018 after a lunch at the House of Commons hosted by Nicky Morgan, MP, a lunch at the House of Lords and an evening Summit at London University for stars of the maths world and other educational experts, at which Justine Greening, MP will speak of the importance of maths to social equality.

As a grand-mother and someone who has “always wanted to try and improve life for other women”, Conran is deeply concerned about what the future holds for the younger generation, especially those who already have Maths Anxiety.

And Maths Anxiety is a very real phenomenon, measurable on rating scales. In fact, brain scans show that the area of the brain that is triggered when someone experiences Maths Anxiety overlaps with the same region as that affected by bodily harm.

Awarded the OBE in 2004 for services to equality, the founder of the Work-Life Balance Trust in 2002 and many other campaigns, Conran is proudest of her maths work. “I am probably the only person who writes about maths who was a B- maths student at school.”

[Embed: link to]

[Embed: link to ]


Shirley Conran

For fourteen years I have talked to many mathematicians, and – speaking as a professional interviewer – sometimes I have found that very difficult.

Recently, I blurted this out to a revered mathematician and – to my surprise – he understood what I meant. And this is what he told me.

1. Mathematicians are very IMPATIENT people.

2. A good mathematician is not necessarily a good teacher. However, a good teacher can learn – relatively quickly – to teach up to and including Key 3 maths.

3. When talking to each other, mathematicians have no communication problems, but they can have difficulty when talking to a student because what is then needed is a restrictive language with a smaller vocabulary, for each age and ability.

Imagine a staircase, said my friendly mathematician. At the top of the staircase two maths teachers, Pat and Alex, are happily chatting to each other about maths.

On the bottom step stands a five-year-old. On the second step stands a
six-year-old, and so on. The maths teachers cannot easily adjust their communication level about maths to either of them… or a ten-year-old or a fourteen-year-old.

But a good maths teacher needs to be able to communicate well about maths on every level of the staircase.

Copyright © Shirley Conran 2015