As a smart girl who excelled in math and science, I didn’t go into STEM. And now I’m asking why.
As I have been writing about inspiring women and thinking harder about the forces that influence women’s choices from childhood, I didn’t think to shine the spotlight back on myself. Luckily, I have parents for that.
I wrote about some awesome women in mathematics, which you can read here. I’ll wait. Okay, see how inspiring those ladies are? Anyway, back to the story. I wrote that piece in which I mention that even though in school I excelled in math and science, I never once thought that it was the career path for me. After she read that, my mom left Brain Magic our first comment asking why I had never considered doing anything STEM-related?
Honestly, I had never really asked myself that.
As a little background, I grew up in a house basically overflowing in STEM. Both my mom and my dad are civil engineers, so my brother and I often joked about how often our dinner conversation turned to roadways, onramps, and drainage. My mom was on the team that designed the massive bridge over the Hoover Dam.
Yeah, it’s pretty badass.
Whenever my math and science skills surprised a teacher or peer, I always referenced my parents’ super math brains. And yet, I never considered making that my career. I should add that I also excelled in English, so it’s not like I chose to act completely against my talents. Also,
But still, even in high school, I was aware that my affinity for numbers and logic was unusual, but excelling in those subjects never made me feel gifted. At the time, I assumed it was because I thought math and science were “lame” and “boring,” subjects to get through, not enjoy (sorry parents). But looking back as an adult – was there something more going on?
I’m not great at psychoanalyzing myself (no one is), but I took a look at some other work on this area to compare my own experience to figure out why I’m a writer and not a scientist (although it’s never too late for both).
Women don’t get the encouragement.
Eileen Pollack wrote a piece for The New York Times exploring this very issue. She studied physics at Yale, and graduated at the top of her class. But she didn’t go on to graduate study, because she felt that she wasn’t good enough. She saw her male peers being encouraged by this professor or that professor to pursue a further education, so she read her LACK of encouragement as a signal that she wasn’t good enough. Years later, she spoke to a former professor about it, only to find that he thought she was exceptional.
In high school, I don’t remember feeling like I was getting a lack of validation, but I DID get a lot of surprise, as I mentioned above. Teacher after teacher in my math and science classes was always surprised at how well I did. They were pleasantly surprised, not discouraging, but still. Looking back, I can see now that their surprise came with a backhanded, “but you’re not supposed to be good at this.” And again, none of this happened consciously, but maybe subconsciously, I didn’t want to live my life having people assuming that I was less than capable until I proved them wrong. (I foolishly went into Hollywood, so that happened too me anyway. Go figure!)
Women are taught that we’re bad at math and science.
A study by Dr. Joshua Aronson tested how women performed on a math test based on how well they felt they as women could expect to do. Researchers told half the women that men typically score higher on the test than women. They told the other half of the women that there was no gender difference on the test. The women who expected to score worse, unsurprisingly, did worse on the test than the other women. When they thought they weren’t good enough, they lived up to their own expectations.
Luckily, I didn’t suffer from this. Because both my mom and my dad were engineers, excelling in math was pretty much a requirement. However, as I mentioned above, the “surprise” attitude might’ve communicated that those classes weren’t something I was supposed to be good at.
Even when we are good, the world assumes men are better.
A study of gender bias used the site GitHub to assess the gender gap in computer engineering. On the site, coders submit revised code to open source software that can be accepted and implemented. The study found that women’s code was accepted more often than men’s on the site. However, when women’s gender was known, their code was accepted less often.
Plus, there is plenty of unconscious bias that affects how people view women in STEM. Even the most progressive mentor or educator likely still unconsciously thinks that science and math suit men better than women.
In my freshman high school math class, my family had recently moved, so I ended up in a math class that I had already done. The class bored me, but I excelled in it. On the final exam, my teacher revealed afterward that he bet another teacher $20 that I would score 100% on the test. I did, but the idea of the bet bothered me SO much. I told all my friends that had I known ahead of time, I would have purposefully gotten a question wrong. Would my type A personality have allowed that? Who knows!
But I wondered if my teacher told the other teacher my gender. And I wondered if my gender made the other teacher accept the bet. Because girls don’t get 100% on math tests. I can’t confirm that my gender had anything to do with the bet, but I can still say that the story makes me furious. And it makes me wonder if my gender influenced other classes. Did my teachers call on my male peers more often in class even though I was a top student? I don’t know. Did they encourage my male peers in ways they didn’t for me? I don’t know.
We underappreciate our own skills, even exceptional skills.
Women self-assess ourselves more harshly than men. So even when we do well, we perceive our work as lesser-than our male peers. I’ve definitely felt that, because even though I was great at those subjects, I remember feeling like it wasn’t exceptional.
One memory in particular sticks out. I took the AP Calculus I test as a senior in high school. For those unfamiliar with AP (Advanced Placement) classes, these high school classes mimic a college course. At the end of the year, you take a major exam that potentially qualifies you for college credit.
As I exited the test, a huge weight lifted off my shoulders, because I thought the test was easy. I don’t remember the specifics of why I felt that way, but my friend met up with me in the hallway after, and he, too, felt like he had aced it. We high-fived and celebrated the fact that we’d conquered calculus, and we did both score a 5 on the test, the highest you can get. I don’t stay in touch with this friend, but I know through Facebook that he’s now a doctor. As for me, that was the last math class I ever took.
Now I’m just that person who mentally calculates tips for the table, or divides up a receipt. I glance over “Common Core” homework posted online by frustrated parents, and I understand the theory behind it. I add numbers in my head many people use a calculator for. Or I play Sudoku. And it’s not that I don’t want to write, because I love writing and creating. But it’s interesting that where so many of my male peers seized on their own brilliance, I shrugged it off and went a different way.
School doesn’t tell us that science and math can be VERY creative fields.
If only I had Mayim Bialik in my life sooner. It wasn’t until well into adulthood that I learned how fascinating and creative computer science is. I never thought to listen to my parents about the left brain pixie dust required to design a bridge that impressive, because I was a dumb kid (sorry parents). Studies of gender divide focus on mentors and encouragement so much, because students don’t learn the specifics about career paths in school. We learned formulas, concepts, facts, but I never learned much theory or problem solving. And that’s the side that would have won me over.
I lucked out because I had a strong female role model in STEM, but I was still a teenager when I picked my college major. I didn’t want to do what my PARENTS wanted me to do. And they would never push me into a career they didn’t think I wanted. But if even one teacher had told me that my creative brain and aptitude for the nitty gritty math and science made me a candidate for an exciting career in a STEM field, would that have changed my mind?
I won’t know, because it never happened.
This piece isn’t meant to suggest that STEM careers are *better* than others, or that writing isn’t an exciting and fabulous way to live. But we artists can’t argue with the facts that many of the top earning jobs are STEM fields. And many of the fastest growing jobs are STEM jobs. If our goal for the next generation is always to position them for success, then we have to encourage and support both boys and girls in the pursuit and love of math and science. So many awesome groups have already started to turn the tide, and I’m excited to see more and more progress.
Because I can’t say that the gender divide that dissuades many women and girls from going into STEM affected my choice of career. But I also can’t definitively say that it WASN’T. And that’s the part I want to see changed.
What do you think? Was I affected? Am I just whining? Am I just such a good writer that you couldn’t imagine me having another job? Let us know in the comments!