Despite parents of the you-can-be-anything-you-want persuasion, Emily Heist-Moss absorbed the misguided notion that math and science were not going to play a role in her future. Why?
I’ve spent the last fifteen years studiously avoiding math and science. Now I’m 23 and I’m just starting to wonder why.
Other subjects, namely the ones involving words, came naturally to me, or so I thought. Every time I had the opportunity to sink my teeth into math or science as I would a classic novel or epoch of history, I shied away. I became very good at dodging math bullets. In retrospect, the pattern is near pathological, and I’ve been trying to piece together when and where this aversion started. How much of it is just how I’m wired, and how much of it comes from media exposure that promotes the message that math is hard for girls?
I was a child in love with books. Somewhere along the line, I’d estimate 7th grade, the fact that I was good at reading and writing began to eclipse any other talents I might have developed. Advanced English and social studies classes absorbed all the energy I had for academic pursuits, and math and science were relegated to the minimum I could get away with and still get into college. I gave up on the desire to enjoy the challenge those subjects offered, partly out of the belief that I should play to my strengths. Numbers took work, while words were easy, so numbers got the axe.
In fourth grade, much to my pre-adolescent embarrassment, my dad started an afterschool math club. He brought in logic puzzles, brainteasers, and probability games to show us the “cool” side of math. That same year, after I vehemently expressed my desire to polish rocks (to what end, I’m unclear), I received a rock tumbler for Christmas. I never used it. There were numerous museum trips, faux-volcano kits, and IMAX movies about the solar system. There were books about Marie Curie and Ada Lovelace, and anthologies mythologizing other giantesses of math and science. We had a telescope in the backyard and virtually every National Geographic since 1965. I did not grow up in a science-deprived household.
Yet, when the eighth-grade math fair rolled around and my peers investigated angles in billiards or the statistical likelihood of a Boardwalk landing in Monopoly, I intentionally sought out the least math-y subject on the list: the art of M.C. Escher. In high school, I dodged calculus by taking an advanced statistics class taught by a notoriously disengaged teacher. I was afraid that faced with “real” math (like calculus), I wouldn’t do as well as a kid as smart as me was supposed to do.
And then, in college, at an institution that prides itself on providing a high-quality liberal arts education, I wiggled out of heavy-duty math yet again. I picked a class on number theory, which sounded sufficiently wordy to my uneducated ears. To everyone’s surprise, most of all my own, I rocked that class. For the first time in a math class, I was the kid who ruined the curve. My instructor circled my midterm grade and wrote “Wow!!!”; I emailed a picture of that comment to my parents. I started to wonder where I ever got the idea I was bad at math.
I’m done with school, and I’ve never taken calculus. At each fork in the academic road, I opted out of tough math and science classes. I thought that math didn’t “come naturally” to me and the challenge it offered was one I wasn’t interested in confronting. The truth is that I played it safe.
The other undeniable truth is that math is presented in pop culture as particularly challenging and unappealing to girls. This week the internet lost its collective shit over a JCPenny t-shirt that has since been discontinued. The shirt reads, in sparkly letters, “I’m too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me.” You can still purchase a different tee with a big “My Best Subjects” and checkboxes with “boys,” “music,” “shopping” and “dancing.” Forever 21 sells magnets that say “Too Pretty for Math.” My parents would never have bought this crap for me, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t see it and absorb it growing up. In 1992, when I was five, Mattel released the Teen Talk Barbie that uttered, among other things, “Math class is tough!” Thankfully, my parents didn’t buy me this either.
Despite parents of the you-can-be-anything-you-want persuasion, even I absorbed the misguided notion that math and science were not going to play a role in my future. Many girls (and boys) aren’t interested in math and science, and I’m not suggesting we push them all into trigonometry classes just to prove a point. But, to pretend that boys and girls receive the same societal encouragement about career opportunities and intellectual strengths would be factually incorrect. Remember the running joke from Meet the Parents about Greg being a “male nurse?” How many parents would react with delight when their daughters majored in nursing, but concern if their sons pursued the same thing? The notion that professions that emphasize empathy don’t “come naturally” to boys is just as damaging as suggesting that professions emphasizing logic, analytical skills and technological prowess aren’t “natural” fits for girls.
I’m shifting into a new role at work, one which straddles the border between math-and-science land, where I’m a newcomer, and communication-land, where I’m a local. I should be excited and flattered about this new opportunity, but I’m anxious. What if I can’t do it? What if I don’t learn it as quickly as I should? What if I look dumb in a room full of (all male) tech-savvy software developers? What if they look at me and they know I’ve never taken calculus? Why didn’t it occur to me ten years ago that someday I might want to work in an industry in which math and science are the building blocks? Did I overhear Barbie saying math class was tough?
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