Friday, May 9, 2014

Women, Education, STEM and a Masculine Mind

"Let it not be said, whenever there is energy or creative genius, 'She had a masculine mind.'" - Margaret Fuller

A few months ago I had an older student ask, "Why aren't there very many women in math?" It was a good question. I've been pondering it, and I think in light of the kidnapped Nigerian girls, I'd try to answer it to my limited ability. I don't really have a complete answer as I am one woman with a limited exposure in math and science, but I have thoughts. Buckle up.

First, I'd like to open up the question to "Why aren't there very many women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math)?" In college my biology classes were full of women. (The soft science) In chemistry the numbers got lower (The semi-hard science or the semi-soft science) and in physics (The hard science), even fewer. I took engineering physics at one of the top engineering school in the nation. I remember being one of two women in a lab class. The other woman was all, "Girl Power! Let's best these guys!" And I was definitely, "I just want to pass." The numbers of women in my math courses also decreased as the courses became more complex . What's up, Ladies? Where are you?

As for my personal experience, I grew up in a science house. My dad and mom were scientists. I remember dinner conversations that were scientific and completely beyond my understanding. Boy, these peas taste great. Having a science family helped create an encouraging math-sci environment for me. My parents, particularly my dad, believed in equality of the sexes. That helps even more. My dad says with regularity that he grew up in one of the most egalitarian societies in the world. No, it's not here. The only person who told me that I couldn't do something was me. I'm awesome at thwarting my own efforts. Thank you very much. My family, my micro-community, easily negated social messages that said science is for boys or that math is hard. Oh Barbie, even you can learn.*

Educating women is fairly historically new, and it's definitely not global. #bringbackourgirls. Unfortunately, when women have gone against the social grain historically there has not been a celebration or a warm reception. The seas do not part. There is often hostility. It is like cutting a new path through tall grass with a machete. Tiring. Sweaty. A horrible stink. Putting forth great effort often looks like a hot mess. You have to be ready for a pretty crappy time. I am not a trailblazer, nor did I sign up for it, but I find in just moving forward in math and science that the path is not well worn by women. I am so thankful for those who I can look ahead and see, like professors and scientists. What about the women who are themselves pioneers and can not see other women ahead of them? Women around the world being the first to get an education in your family. You are amazing. Take my strength. Don't lose heart.

So I am quoting Margaret Fuller all over the post today. I was introduced to Margaret Fuller in a U.S. literature class in college. She said some pretty profound things in the 1840s. Almost two hundred years later, her quotes resonate. She was an American Transcendentalist who basically said that, of course, every person wants to be an enlightened man; no enlightened man wants to be a women. Why? Because the social position of women has been wife, mother, cook and housekeeper. There was little room for books, philosophy, science and mathematics which involve extended time as well as thought and often a good housekeeper. She was a voice outside of the men's philoshophy club that said, "Hey, I can't find the door." It looks great for the people inside thinking about greater society but what about the greater society that isn't allowed in.

"In order that she may be able to give her hand with dignity, she must be able to stand alone" - Fuller

So back to the question, "Why aren't there are more women in math and science?" There is definitely not one answer. And the factors work together even though they don't plan to. There are collective forces. To name a few...

  • Straight up sexism. Just a girl. I'm just a girl in the world.
  • Social pressures. Women are marketed for their parts not for their brains. Seriously, marketing parts.
  • Gender education. Girls play with dolls. Boys build things. 
  • It's challenging. Some sciences are physically challenging as well as mentally challenging. Math is so mental. Letters and numbers, come on.
  • Discouragement. Possible and probable failure. Struggling for success is tiring.
  • Loneliness. 
  • Feeling or looking 'different.' Nerd. Geek. A masculine mind.
  • Role models overshadowed by fad models. I love you Mayim Bailik and Danica McKellar.
  • People, influential people, telling them the can't or shouldn't. People say dumb things. I am everyday people, btw.
  • Thinking how teachers or influential people think about them. Women emote and are empathic. People say dumb things or look us in a way that we take to heart even if they are not true. And it collects in our minds and beings.
  • And of course, the tyranny of the urgent. Somebody has to cook, clean, and help fulfill all the other lower properties of Maslow's hierarchy.

There are barriers both real and imaginary. The barriers are internal and external. Thankfully, times, they are a changin'. Let me be clear, not every girl should grow up to be a scientist or a mathematician, but they should have the opportunity to do so if they wish. If they have the talent, we should encourage them and applaud their development. And it shouldn't be so hard for them to find the door. So, Ladies, young and old, if you want to pursue math and science, getting all STEM like, I'll try to clear a path for you.

"We would have every arbitrary barrier thrown down. We would have every path laid open to women as freely as to men. If you ask me what offices they may fill, I reply ---any. I do not care what case you put; let them be sea captains." - Fuller

Smart girlios...stay clever.

*Do you want to encourage some science and math in your home but don't know where to start? Try GoldieBlox or Snap Circuits. Buy a microscope or a telescope. Investigate.


  1. My girls love snap circuits! They especially like making that little fan thingy fly through the air.

  2. I'm glad to have had the childhood that I did because it definitely encouraged me to pursue math and science. I had a brother and we had to share a lot of toys so I never had much pink stuff. We played a lot with legos, hot wheels cars, race cars, K'nex, but we also played with barbies and played school.

    As I grew up, more and more girls were opting out of the hard math and science classes, but when I went to college, I found a lot of fellow female engineers.