All The Ways Society Sabotages Girls in STEM: You Don't Belong Here.
(Originally posted on October 12, 2019)
Articles about the dearth of women in STEM fields abound. Similarly, articles regarding the rate at which girls drop out of science and math, especially as the near puberty, are easy to find. Often, though, we hear from the girls and women who stuck with it and made it, regardless of how tough it was. We read about failure of our system through the triumph of those who reached their goals. But what if someone could share a story of abject failure? That's me, right here. So here we go.
In middle school I was not considered a "science nerd." In fact, of all things I was considered, was a girl with miniskirts, and high heels, and makeup, who also happened to get excellent grades. But I loved biology. I really, really loved biology. And I was proficient in it. I also enjoyed math, even though it was hard for me. In tenth and eleventh grade, we picked which classes to take for our IGCSEs. The expectation was that we would keep the same classes for the last two years of high school, but we didn't have to. I kept biology but didn't take chemistry. Nobody particularly encouraged me one way or another. But as 12th grade rolled around, I realized that I wanted more science & math in my life. So I did three things: 1) I continued with biology; 2) rather than taking 3 standard level and 3 higher level classes, I asked to take 3 standard level classes, including chemistry, and 4 standard level classes; and 3) I enrolled in Math Higher. If you thought my desire to challenge myself was welcomed, you would be wrong.
First, I had to fight tooth and nail to take 3 standard and 4 higher classes. My principal repeatedly told me I was going to fail. I didn't. I got a near perfect score on my IB. Second, I was strongly discouraged from taking chemistry because I had not taken it for two years. The idea that I should entirely give up on a subject at sixteen was outrageous to me. So I fought that too. But I eventually paid for my defiance.
My chemistry teacher repeatedly told me, outright, that I did not belong in their class. When I asked questions because I was picking up the subject after a two year hiatus, they would answer that it was my own fault I did not know the answer because I had not stayed with chemistry. Nonetheless, I spent hours in the library after class reading through older textbooks, teaching myself everything they refused to teach me. In a group project, I came up with a complicated experiment to determine the impact of acid rain of varying compositions on common building elements. During grading, the teacher asked me and my partner who had done most of the work. My partner answered that I had. So the teacher gave my partner a 7 out of 7 and me a 6 out of 7 for being "too bossy." The message could not have been clearer: I needed to know my place. Whether I wanted to or not, I learned that this was not "my field" and that no matter how much I wanted it, it never would be. While it is easy to dismiss the messaging now, it had a profound impact on my 16-year old self.
Math Higher was worse. There were two Math Higher classes. We did the equivalent of a year and a half of college calculus in our curriculum. It was hard, it was challenging, sometimes it drove me crazy, but I also thought it was fascinating. Each class had ONE girl. I was in one, and another girl was in the other. My teacher, a man, made it clear I was out of place. I remember one particular time I asked a question. He paused, looked at me in silence, turned back to the board and kept writing as though I hadn't even spoken. I know that happened often enough that I stopped asking questions. Other times, when I did ask, he would ask other class members to answer, a boy, underscoring how "stupid" I must be if others understood and I had not.
I did not realize until much later how profoundly this affected my trajectory.
In college, I signed up for Calc I and Calc II. I also declared my majors as Biochemistry and History. Unfortunately, life got in the way. During my first year I had to start working, and I was working nights. I would come home at 3 am, wake up at 6 am, and do homework before class at 9 am. While I could do liberal arts classes with little effort, science needed more from me. My grades suffered. Also, I ran into yet another professor--my chemistry professor--who looked at me with such contempt it was impossible to feel like I would make it. After all, he controlled my grades. I didn't do well, earning Bs and Cs, so I gave up. (For an A student, Bs and Cs were devastating. Yes, that's a topic for a whole other post.). The one professor who noticed I was decent at science and math was my calculus professor. He took an interest in my progress and noticed that not only did I enjoy math, I particularly loved doing proofs. So he would give me extra and met with me after classes to go over them. It was the first time in a long time that a technical instructor showed support for my presence in their class. But it was too little, too late.
Defeated, I dropped the Biochemistry major and switched to History & Political Science. I handed my high school notes to my husband, which he used to complete Calc III. I then went to law school.
I often wonder how different my life would have been if someone along the line had told me: You got this. I guess we'll never know.
But in the meantime, tell girls loud and often that they can be awesome at science, that they belong, and that their passion is legitimate. You never know what an impact it could have.