Strength in numbers

16th May 2018

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“Are you a numbers person?” is a question that many of us may have been asked over the years. Numbers and letters can become part of the way we are defined. Being a ‘numbers person’ or a ‘bookworm,’ team science or team humanities, can be as divisive as marmite – you love it or hate it, you can or you can’t.

National Numeracy is an independent charity aiming to change this. As part of the UK’s first National Numeracy Day, they have launched the campaign #numberspeople, spreading the message that everyone can be a ‘numbers person.’

What is numeracy?

Numeracy is defined as “the ability to understand and work with numbers.” ‘Understand’ is the key word here. Numeracy is not just about being able to do the sums, it’s about being able to understand numbers in a way that helps us make informed choices.

Why is numeracy important?

Technology has transformed the way we do everyday maths. For many of us, our smartphones have become permanent pocket calculators. But this doesn’t mean that numeracy is any less important. Being able to understand numbers is a part of everyday life – technology can make this easier but being able to fully understand the statistics splashed across the papers, or extra charges on a phone bill, can help us make informed decisions about what we eat, what we buy or where we spend.

From working out how much you’re saving in that 70% sale, to following a recipe, to cashing up a till, numerical skills are key to how we live and work, especially when it comes to managing our money.

Numeracy levels in the UK

Part of National Numeracy Day is raising awareness for the lack of numeracy in the UK. Statistics published by the Government suggest that 17 million adults have the numeracy level that we expect of primary school children. This equates to 49% of the working-age population of England.

Low levels of numeracy not only costs individuals confidence in themselves and their careers, it costs their bank balance and the country as a whole. National Numeracy reported that the average cost to individuals with poor numeracy is £460 a year; the yearly cost to the UK economy has been put at £20 billion a year.

What steps can be taken to improve numeracy?

Numeracy is not set in stone – we can change it. Just as we can train our bodies and improve our fitness, we can train our brains and improve our numeracy. Thousands of adults have been able to improve their numerical skills already through the work of National Numeracy.

Practical platforms to teach and test you are a great way to improve Numeracy. However, there is also a social aspect to raising the levels of Numeracy in the UK. Brené Brown has talked about the way memories of being told that our “writing wasn’t good enough,” or that we were “bad at drawing” leads to what she calls ‘Art Scars’ – moments of shame that can block our creativity. Many of us also have what we could call ‘Maths Scars’ – moments of shame when we got a calculation wrong, or didn’t know how to work something out when everyone else did and which knocked our confidence throughout and after school. The words we use impact the way we feel about numbers.

Numeracy is also a gendered issue: girls are less confident than boys in their numerical skills. Even though girls continued to outperform boys in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) in 2017, lower levels of self-confidence are contributing to lower levels of women applicants and therefore workers in STEM industries.

This narrative plays its part in wider social inequalities such as the gender pay gap and unequal numbers of men and women across different industries. Giving all children confidence to be ‘numbers people’ is key to building their ambitions and encouraging them to pursue careers without labels, or numbers holding them back.

Starling and numeracy

As part of National Numeracy Day, we asked the team at Starling to think about their relationship to numbers and words and consider how it has changed over time. A quick survey suggested that in childhood, more men than women saw themselves as ‘good with numbers, not words’ and more women than men saw themselves as ‘good with words, not numbers.’ Today, more people at Starling answered that they see themselves as being both ‘good with numbers’ and ‘good with words,’ rather than just one or the other. Confidence in using both numbers and words is something that can grow and develop.

At Starling, we’re passionate about numeracy because it goes hand in hand with managing your money. Lots of features in our app use technology to do the maths for you: The Pulse adds up your daily spend; Settle Up helps you split the bill straight from the app; Spending Insights adds up your monthly spend and breaks it down by category and merchant.

However, Starling is much more than just an in-built calculator, we want you to be able to understand these numbers to make managing your money easier. Working out how much you can afford to save is made simpler by comparing monthly spend and salary, daily budgets are more straightforward when you can see your balance and daily spend at a glance, and our overdrafts don’t have complicated monthly fees (we charge one flat rate of 15% Equivalent Annual Rate).

These practical features are part of the way we aim to empower everyone to lead a happier and healthier financial life. But we’re also interested in the way we talk to men and women about money which is why we launched our campaign #MakeMoneyEqual. Like money, numbers are genderless. And we can all be numbers people.

Sources

Definition: Numeracy Podcast: Are you a numbers person? Research: National Numeracy, BBC (OECD reported that 66% of girls worry they will get poor marks in maths, in comparison to 49% of boys), Mintel (Boys aged between 7-15 prefer Maths and Science, while Girls favour Arts and Humanities), Wise (Women make up 23% of those in core STEM occupations in the UK), The Power of Vulnerability by Brené Brown.

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