Feminism, Fillyjonk

On Message

Last week someone asked my husband why there weren’t more women in ham radio and other techy jobs/hobbies, and being a good feminist he asked me what he should say. The response he’d been tossing around, he said, had something to do with how nobody tells women they can do science, math, or engineering.

This, it seemed to me, was a start but only the tip of the iceberg. I mean, it’s generally true that people don’t tell girls they can get into technical hobbies or STEM professions, but does that really get to the heart of what we’re missing? The implication then is that all girls need is a firm steady guiding hand giving them a Walkie-Talkie and a physics text. Not only does it understate the complexity of the problem, but it leaves your argument open to facile rebuttals: “But my daughter’s Girl Scout troop learned how circuits work.” “But I tell all my math students they can succeed.” “But my niece was signed up for science camp and she just didn’t like it — are you sure it’s not something innate?”

Because the problem isn’t the messages girls don’t get — it’s the ones they do. It’s not the lack of someone telling them, in so many words, that math and science are open doors for them. It’s the fact that everything else in their life tells them that’s not true. Maybe nobody says out loud “but that’s math, that’s for boys.” Some well-meaning parent or counselor or teacher may actually say otherwise. But overt articulation is not the only way that messages get through. Maybe teachers call on you less in certain subjects. Maybe the books and gifts you get push you down one path instead of another. Maybe it’s just the tone in your mother’s voice when you tell her what you want to be when you grow up — disappointment, or amused indulgence. Maybe after being bombarded with these unspoken conclusions every day since birth for your entire life, Teen Talk Barbie no longer needs to tell you in so many words that math is hard.

The same is true of other messages girls get. As Sweet Machine posted recently, Harriet Jacobs of Fugitivus put her finger on how these implicit messages operate in the case of rape and resistance. It’s true of body image too. No quantity of Sesame Street songs about how there is only one you and you are fundamentally worthwhile is going to fully counteract the million insidious messages that say you’re ugly, you’re unloveable, you take up too much space, you don’t measure up. It’s like putting on a Band-aid before you walk through a thicket of thorns. Even if nobody says it out loud (and face it, they probably do), women aren’t stupid. By the time we’re four or five, we can read the wall of text next to the checkout. We can interpret advertisements and facial expressions. We hear subtext. We know the score.

When we talk about the messages that women receive, this is often interpreted as meaning things that people actually say directly and in so many words. Wouldn’t that be simple, if we could just make sure people told girls out loud that they were unique and valuable people? But we are subtle creatures, primed to take in information even when it’s not served up to us on a platter. As an example: I was turning this post over in my head while driving home from the Metro the other day, and I thought to pay attention for a few minutes to all the information I was taking in as I drove. In addition to paying attention to the road and (vaguely, since I do this drive every day) noticing where I was and which direction I was going, I was also taking in messages about the weather, the time, the season, my bladder, my hunger level, the fit of my shoes which were rubbing on my heel, the feel of the steering wheel, an itch on my ear, the functioning of the car, the behavior of other cars and pedestrians not in my direct line of vision, the music and lyrics of the song on my iPod and its relationship to the song before it. I’m generally not consciously aware of all these bits of information, but they come together to make up my picture of the world at any given instant. And if any kind soul had told me they weren’t true, I’d know they were blowing smoke.

This is why patriarchy is so difficult to defeat — because you’re soaking in it. Unless you lock a girl in a windowless, TV-less room from birth and have her wet-nursed by Hortense from Jezebel, she’s going to encounter the sticky tentacles of a social system that says she’s more decoration than person, and a flawed decoration at that. She’s going to encounter them every single day of her life, reinforcing each other, ganging up, forming part of her understanding of reality. And just telling her she’s fine how she is — or not telling her, out loud, that she isn’t — simply will not be enough.

This is also true, by the way, of the messages men receive. I’ve been thinking about this, especially Jacobs’ points about how women learn passivity, in connection with the gym shooting incident (by the way, Kate has a brilliant post about the gym shooter and Nice Guy Syndrome on Broadsheet, in case you missed it). Jeff Fecke wrote a post at Alas about shooter George Sodini’s pathological attitude towards women, in which he talks about the way that “pickup artists” the man’s loneliness and told him that women were less than human:

Sodoni [sic] went to seminars where they told him to “kill the nice guy,” as if niceness was his failing. He read books telling him that if he was assertive enough, bold enough, that twentysomethings would be beating a path to his door… Sodoni looked to charlatans and hucksters who claimed that you, too, can get the girl of your dreams if you just insult her enough.

(You can see the responses of some of these charmers to Sodini’s rampage at another post on Alas, but be warned that you will feel crushing despair.)

It’s all very well to think of Sodini as a sad crank whose chipped shoulder was exploited by misogynist con men. He really did have a little devil whispering in his ear that women owed him sex and deserved to be hurt and mistreated for withholding it — he was even paying the devil for the privilege. But it would be a grave mistake to imagine that just because these messages were more overt than what we usually hear, they were in some way unusual. Sodini paid people to tell him that women are lesser beings. Most men get those messages for free.

We can’t symbolically get rid of Sodini by pointing out all the explicit encouragement he got from the PUA community, both before and after his repugnant crime. Normal men don’t seek out that encouragement, it’s true — but they don’t have to, because they live in the society that bred the PUA movement in the first place. The difference between the messages Sodini got and the ones men are bombarded with every day is only a difference of scale and obviousness, not one of kind. This is why otherwise decent men make sexist jokes  (or listen quietly to sexist jokes), or justify or minimize “gray rape,” or derail discussions of feminism by focusing on men’s needs. It’s overt feminist messages that are unusual, not overt sexist ones. In an atmosphere of constant sub rosa misogyny, where that constant misogyny actually forms part of our sense of reality, it’s the people who object that bring us up short, more than the people who participate or even take it to extremes.

Why do feminists “overreact” to the tiniest traces of misogyny in ads and media, things the more enlightened call harmless fun? Because those tiny traces pollute our minds and our environments. Because we struggle each day through a miasma of subtle, insidious particles of information saying that men need to fuck women into submission, that women are inherently lesser beings, that women’s looks are their only worth, that women’s safety and health and comfort are unimportant — and the particles that stick to you don’t wash off easily. Because this polluted environment breeds girls who think they can’t do math, but also men who kill. And because contradicting only the most obvious, bald-faced, clear-cut messages just doesn’t do enough to stop it.

151 thoughts on “On Message”

  1. As someone who entered science and is currently repurposing my science education, there’s also working conditions after. In many coding houses, for example, long hours are expected. I’ve heard that this is causing problems for female lawyers, too.

    Some of it is that women are still doing that second shift and it’s simply too much; but even in a work-balanced household, some of it may be that we’re more expected to create community through non-work sources (friends, family, our kids’ schools, etc.). These are things I’m unwilling to give up because I don’t believe the patriarchal male role is utterly livable; time with my kids, associations outside of my profession, time not spent at work. 40 hours a week is enough. More is hard to live around, especially once you’re juggling kids, or are older and don’t have the same store of dance all night and still write the test the next morning energy.

  2. Or, it’s the looks and reactions of everyone (including co-workers or co-classmen) when you’re THE only girl in your classes, and sometimes program. It can be unsettling. And, regardles of how they think they’re behaving, they DO in fact treat the women differently. Society as a whole would have to change and some of us can’t fight that hard to change the world for the future the wa it needs to be changed. Wimpy, but sometimes confort and happiness wins out..after all, it’s just a job and there’s only so much that some of us can take before the towel is thrown. Not all of us are as awesome as you ladies!

  3. I am an Engineer. Okay, it took me 12 years to get my bachelors degree and everything, but I did get it. The problem I see is that the field still feels largely like an Ol’ Boys’ Network. Where women are looked upon (and treated) as curiosities for the most part.

    My family was not entirely supportive of me, and I had other personal difficulties to get through at the same time, so it took longer.

    The other problem I see – and not just for women in the more technical fields – is the societal message that “everyone MUST be in a romantic relationship!” and “without a relationship, YOU ARE NOTHING!”

    I’ve had my share of bad relationships and have reached a point personally (meaning it only applies to ME and no one else) that I really don’t want/need a romantic relationship (whether it be hetrosexual or homosexual…) right now. If ever.

    It is not something “innate” that prevents those of the female gender from pursuing technical fields for careers, but it is societal… I have no “fixes” for it, but a good first step could possibly be treating the presence of women in technical fields not as curiosities but as equals, capable of doing the same job.

    This and $3 will get you a venti somethingorother at Starbucks. *wry*

  4. Most people don’t know that I majored in math before I decided to scrap it and become a lawyer. I hate telling this story because it makes me sound like an egotistical jackass and also a whiner. But fuck it, it’s true.

    I went to a mediocre state school, so I don’t know how I would have fared in a more competitive, “elite” environment. But where I was, I was one of the best. My math professors gave me perfect scores on my work and, when asked, gave me glowing recommendations. I taught other students, I gave impromptu tutoring sessions after class. I was very, very good and I got A+’s in courses other students were happy to get a C in because the professor was rumored to be that difficult.

    But no one gave a shit. Not a single professor encouraged me. Not a one of them told me I should go to graduate school. They all seemed more impressed with the fact that I was an English major, too, and told me I should go do that because I was a good writer.

    Because not only are women told that they can’t do science and math, they are not nurtured in it. Because the men who overwhelm the profession do not see themselves in these young women, and they have no desire to mentor them.

    On the last day of my junior year of high school, which I thought would be my last math course ever (I wasn’t even going to take it senior year), my math teacher who I’d had for three years mentioned to me in passing that he thought I’d be a “talented mathematician.” I was shocked. Even though really, it’d been obvious my entire life–I’d excelled at math from the very beginning, was always several years ahead of my classmates. But I saw my male classmates getting special attention for it, and I got none, so I assume I must just be good, not great.

    I got a lot of special attention for other things I was good at. But never for that. So how surprising is it that I kept on wanting to do other things?

    That’s how it works.

  5. For me, the message was explicit. Though I loved science as much as I loved any other subject, I had some difficulty with math, particularly geometry. This was unusual for me because I was a good student, used to not even having to try to make good grades in any other subject. And instead of assuring me that it’s normal to be challenged, and I should just try harder, my mom, perhaps because this is what SHE was taught, told me it wasn’t my fault. Girls’ brains just can’t do math. And with that, I was freed from even bothering to try to like or be good at math. And now I’m 24 and can barely ADD without the aid of a calculator. It’s embarrassing.

  6. This is a wonderful post. I often bemoan, when encountering everyday sexist messages, that “This is the air we breathe.” For me, using pollution as a metaphor is perfect. You’ve laid out the pollutants to let us see them for what they are. It’s important work that you’re doing.

  7. Holy Shit FJ, this an amazing post. I wish I could hash out everything that’s going through my head, but I’m about to walk out of the door. Thank you so much. This is so incredibly important.

  8. I have my degree in English literature. I went as far as advanced algebra and trig in high school, but quit math after that.

    I made good grades in math but I really struggled to get them and my dad had to help me with my homework. It was the only subject I had EVER needed help with since elementary school or something, so I think I just somehow got it into my head that math was something my dad had to do for his job, but not something my mom had to do for hers, and she seemed fine, so I would just not worry about mastering it. Does that make sense? Even though they both told me how important it was, I could *see* that my mom was getting along fine without it, so I knew I could too.

    The sad thing is, I love science, and wanted to major in botany in college, but chickened out of it because of all the math I knew I’d have to take along with a science major.

    I hope that if I have girls one day I’ll be able to help them with their math homework so that they can see it’s something I know is valuable. Of course, now that it’s already been eight years since I’ve done any math besides addition, I wonder how feasible that is. :/

  9. “BAM! ” That’s what I said to myself after reading this post. You took your awesome pills this morning!

  10. I went to a mediocre state school, so I don’t know how I would have fared in a more competitive, “elite” environment. But where I was, I was one of the best.

    If you were one of the best in a big R2 university department as an undergrad, you would probably be considered on par with average graduates of a smaller department at a more “elite” school. At least, that’s how a lot of faculty look at grad school applications in STEM fields, IME. fwiw.

    FJ, this is a great post. Something I don’t talk about often is that I somehow seemed to escape internalizing a lot of this, which seems like flat-out dumb luck. If I was getting discouraging messages from teachers and mentors and tv growing up, they might have been effectively counteracted by the running commentary by my parents, or maybe the hints were just too subtle for me to pick up. Maybe it helped that my parents were [what felt like] “overprotective” when it came to tv and movies and magazines? Maybe being a little clueless helps when the messages aren’t overt? It’s hard to say — maybe that’s why I planned to study humanities/social sciences in college, and thought I didn’t like science that much in high school. I’ll never know.

  11. I struggle with this subject a lot. And I’m not nearly so well-read, so I may be saying something incredibly inane.

    But I am a computer scientist who ENTERED computer science in part because I wanted to escape girls. I didn’t like girls when I was a child. (I guess I should make sure it’s clear that I *am* a woman at this point :). ) Hanging out with girls was mean and competitive. Hanging out with boys was comfortable. I didn’t actually discover the power of female company until I was in my 20s.

    I think in retrospect what I was feeling was similar to what a lot of people feel — adolescents are vicious creatures, and rather than attempt to survive in the jungle, I chose to reject it entirely and build a world where I was always an outsider who could interact on my own terms. With so few women in CS and geek-techie pursuits, I never felt like I was in competition with anyone but myself. And I DO like computer science a great deal, don’t get me wrong. But I also like all variety of liberal arts pursuits that have much higher female:male ratios in college classes. I do those things too.

    I hypothesize based on my experience, combined with anecdotes from my feminist friends who face rebellion from their young daughters when they try to free them from their gender roles, is that part of growing up is determining gender identity. And since we’re self-segregating in our formative years, it’s very difficult to free young people from stupid stereotypes just at the time when those stereotypes have the most power over them. If there is any stereotype still floating around in adult society, adolescents will latch onto those distinctions and abuse their peers for not conforming.

    I don’t know the answer to this. And, honestly, I remember my outsider geek haven with a lot of fondness. If the playing field is fully leveled, there will be no such escapes, because I highly doubt we will be able to make young people more civilized.

  12. This essay isn’t just about women – it’s about how deeply flawed all teaching of mathematics is in this society. But it makes very interesting reading, and I think it’s worth thinking about whether it applies to girls differently from boys.

    A Mathematician’s Lament

  13. This post got me thinking about my daughter and I wanted to share because I think it’s kind of weird/interesting. She was in 5th grade last year and suddenly started to complain that she was having trouble in math. She is a super smart kid and has typically done well in all her subjects. I had a terrible time with math myself at her age so on nights when she said she was having trouble completing homework or whatever, I’d recruit her older brother to help her with anything math related. In watching them interact, she really didn’t seem to me to not understand the concepts and when I’d review her graded assignments I didn’t see anything that seemed to indicate any trouble. One day, about the middle of the last quarter, I received a letter from the school stating that next year she would be receiving “differentiated services” for math. My first thought was “oh no she really is having trouble with Math! how did I miss this?” Then as I read further I realized that she was being advanced in math through the Gifted and Talented program, not regressed. When I told her this she was totally surprised. She came back the next day from school and said her math teacher told her he had no idea why she was being put in GT for math. I just let it go, but yesterday we received her standardized test scores from the school and she had received a perfect score in both Math and Science. Apart from being really excited and proud, we were both thinking that must be the reason for GT Math, yet I find it strange that Mr. Math teacher wasn’t aware of this. So now I’m wondering where she got the idea that she was “bad” at math. Did she really ever feel that she was having trouble or was there somthing else going on? Was she being made to feel that being smart somehow made her uncool? Was her teacher not giving her positive feedback? Maybe she liked that her big brother was helping her out instead of them fighting?

  14. Spot on, fillyjonk!

    Put me in with volcanista – I somehow missed out on internalizing that women can’t do math/science. I was always at the top of math/science classes – in high school, in undergrad, in grad school. Though I will also point out that I skipped taking physics in high school due to a known misogynist teaching the class. I figured I had better things to do with my time my senior year than put up with his shite.

    I also wonder if we all can learn something about how people perceive these subtle messages from those of us women in the STEM fields. Somehow we all made it here in spite of society telling us we couldn’t, and lots of us are very successful. So, why? What made us do it?

  15. This is my first time commenting here, although I’ve been reading for a few months. I have to say I’ve had a somewhat different experience than some of the other people here. I studied math as an undergraduate, and I did well and I was encouraged. In fact, in my final year, my impression was that graduate school was really the only option for me. After two and a half years in a math PhD program, I decided to quit because it wasn’t what I really wanted to do. My decision to leave had nothing to do with how I was treated as a woman at school. I just realized that I didn’t want to do math for the rest of my life. I felt almost guilty for being yet another woman to drop out of graduate school in math (this is a somewhat common phenomenon). But I had to do what was right for me, without worrying about adding to the statistics. I know I can do math, but I shouldn’t have to just because not many women do. We have to make sure things don’t go the opposite way: a young woman who is good at both math and English shouldn’t feel that studying math is somehow a better thing to do than studying English.

  16. This post is great, and so true. I constantly find myself laughing at jokes that are sexist but it’s subtle and if I don’t laugh, if I get mad, people say I’m overreacting. Few people understand that these teeny tiny messages make up the huge message of “women are less than men.” Most days I don’t even notice it, much less am able to articulate it in the way you do.

    What upsets me most is that the sources I turn to for intelligent liberal and occassionally feminist humor, contain the same messages. My liberal outspoken smart friends who generally stand up against social injustice can’t seem to bring themselves to stand up to Stephen Colbert when he calls Sarah Palin a GILF, or Seth McFarlane when he jokes about ugly women with cankles on family guy.

    It’s bred into us on every show, every commercial and magazine. Occasionally I find the same examples of sexism in Cosmo sneaking into Bust magazine. I can’t even think of a way to make it stop. Maybe just recognizing it is a huge step in the right direction.

  17. P. S. My post was not meant to say that Stephen Colbert and Family Guy are ultimate sources of intelligent humor, they were the best examples I could come up with at the moment.

  18. How about: I attend a top-25 undergraduate institution (as determined by US News & World Report) which falls neatly under the label of ‘small liberal-arts college.’ There is one full-time female professor in our chemistry department (of approximately ten faculty members) and she is going on sabbatical this year. I feel so bad for the female first-year students; what is that going to say to them?

    (I should note that, despite the significant lack of female faculty in the sciences at my institution, at least our chemistry/biochemistry majors are just about half-male, half-female; and this professor’s leave is at least in part due to her just having been granted tenure.)

  19. I graduated from college with an honors degree in Materials Science and Engineering. I had good messages and bad growing up–I still remember the professors in my Engineering classes who wouldn’t call on women–not all of them but more than one–but I also remember those who encouraged me.

    And as I tried to stay an engineer, and later a computer programmer, I kept getting the message: you’re so articulate and people-friendly, you shouldn’t do the tech stuff, you should manage people who do, or interface between business or tech. I fought it for many years, but finally moved over to be more business oriented and out of pure tech.

    This is partially because when I was doing pure tech, I also had to do the touchy feely communications stuff because the men weren’t expected to–they just weren’t good at it. Finally I decided I’d rather do one job than two.

    There are so many things that contribute to women leaving technical and science based fields. For most of the women I know, it was a lifetime of little things and big things that eventually tipped us over. As you say, we’re soaking in it.

  20. Yes, yes yes!

    I remember being the only girl in advanced math throughout elementary school. I was the only girl on my quiz bowl team. My (male) middle school science teacher told my parents that had a future in science, and I took every high school science class a year early. I always liked math and loved physics (my dad is a physicist), but by the time I started college I’d decided that science was too hard for me.

    So I majored in religion and politics.

    I’m not embarrassed by my degree, and I chose to go back to graduate school in the same area, but I still wonder if I could have majored in physics and done things a little differently.

  21. I look like my mom. I know that sounds like a non sequitur, but it ended up influencing my academic life.

    I look like my mom, and as a child, my mother would talk about how I was just like her, and she’d talk about how she was terrible at math and taking tests.

    I had trouble with math throughout school and avoided it in college.

    On a whim, I took a pre-medical biology class in college. This was a weed-out class for people hoping to stay on pre-med track.

    I rocked at biology. I had three TAs, one lab tech and my biology professor ask me to consider becoming a biology major. I told them I wouldn’t be able to handle chemistry.

    And I became a journalist who still avoids numbers.

  22. Also, Gina: it may be as simple as your daughter not yet feeling fully comfortable with the material despite “getting” it. For me, there’s a level of understanding when I can repeat it back to someone, and then there’s a level of understanding where it really makes sense to me on a personal level, especially with mathematical/scientific concepts. Sometimes I can understand a concept without feeling like I do, and simply going over it a few times with someone can make me feel a lot better. If that is what’s going on, it may be that your daughter has an interest in math and may end up headed in that direction.

  23. I was lucky to escape indoctrination into the “girls can’t do math” idea. My mom has worked as a budget analyst for most of my life. When I visited her at work, I was (and still am!) awed by the sheer amount of numbers she works with. Numbers in spreadsheets on her monitor, numbers on printouts all over her desk, numbers everywhere! She explained her job to me and my sister in child-friendly terms when we asked the inevitable “Mommy, what’s your job? What does a budget analyst do?” questions. Mommy makes sure that all the other people who work for the city have enough money to do their jobs, that nobody takes more than their fair share because there’s only so much to go around, and tries to predict how much money the city will have in the future so everyone else can plan. (Sharing and being fair are very important concepts to children, IME.) Yes, this involves lots of math.

    I never liked math until I got to geometry. However, I scoffed at people who said girls couldn’t do math. Nonsense! Mommy does math all day, and she gets paid for it! Mommy helps me with my math homework, balances the checkbook, and does the bills. Of course girls can do math.

    Come to think of it, this might be one reason why my difficulties with arithmetic frustrated me so much in grade school. I knew I was smart, I got A’s in everything else. I knew that being a girl had nothing to do with math ability. Mom and Grandma drilled me with flash cards every day… and I really, sincerely tried to memorize those numbers. To understand the difference between symbols. Eventually I wound up in special ed for math, which I found humiliating. But Dr. P. did manage to teach me enough to get by, even though I never could manage to fully memorize my times tables. I can do trigonometry but I can’t add up single-digit game scores without my fingers or a calculator.

    About a year ago I stumbled across a website describing a learning disability called dyscalculia. (Link below.) Sort of like dyslexia with numbers. HOLY CRAP THEY WERE WRITING ABOUT ME! I’m not alone! I wonder how many dyscalculic girls and women think they’re bad with numbers just because of their chromosomes, when they actually have a learning disability.

    What is dyscalculia? http://www.dyscalculiaforum.com/viewpage.php?page_id=18

    Symptoms: http://www.dyscalculiaforum.com/viewpage.php?page_id=1

  24. I kept getting the message: you’re so articulate and people-friendly, you shouldn’t do the tech stuff, you should manage people who do, or interface between business or tech.

    Yes yes yes. This was similar to the “you’re such a good writer and good at other stuff, you should do that, instead of doing boring old math.”

    But that’s not the message that men get. When male professors see a male student who is good at what they do, they try to recruit him for their “team,” not encourage him to do something else.

  25. About 3 years ago I went to a fashion book party, and I meet a friend of the author’s. This friend was a scientist. I was almost beside myself. I blurted out “You’re a lady scientist! That is so COOOOL!” I went on like this for a couple of minutes, and told her that I’ve never met a scientist nor a female one at that. Every now and then, I think about meeting this woman and then remember how girls/women aren’t encouraged to go in those kind of fields.

    Whenever I meet a little girl (I work at the library) who says that math or science is favorite subject, I heap tons of praise & encouragement on her.

  26. Elizabeth — thanks so much for that beautiful link!

    Alibelle — I think that Stephen Colbert is taking the piss at the whole idea of MILF, etc, (or at least at the idea of calling people that.) Not to say taking the piss at Sarah Palin Herself.

  27. Man, now I’m even more pissed off that I was discouraged from taking advanced math and science courses when I was in grade school. I was always great at everything scientific, and I’ve researched advanced math concepts for fun since my family got a computer when I was 8. But I was constantly discouraged from pursuing it, and I was even barred from taking physics in high school because the vice principal insisted that I wasn’t smart enough. Grr! I kinda want to do a math degree now, just to spite all of them.

  28. shutupmonica: That could well be the case- when she finds something she is interested in she wants to understand it all, so that would make total sense. Thanks for your input!

  29. I know that one thing which convinced me at university NOT to apply for any programming-type company jobs was the constant stream of articles about what a testosterone-pit most programming departments were and how they desperately needed more women.

    I’m a programmer. I’m also shy and emotional and easily intimidated. Therefore, I’m self-employed!

  30. “Eventually I wound up in special ed for math, which I found humiliating.”

    I should clarify this. I found special ed humiliating *at the time*, due to being in third grade, having built most of my identity on Being Smart, and the general lack of maturity which is part of being a kid. These days I look back at that special ed class, and I am grateful. Dr. P. was patient and taught me how to make some sense of numbers in a way that I could understand… which is the whole point of education, ‘special’ or not, now that I think about it.

  31. I went into two heavily male dominated fields, back to back. In both cases, I was made to feel like an outsider, paid less, given little mentorship and looked upon as an oddity. The work environment was hostile and sometimes pornographic. The women in my sphere of influence also treated me differently because they couldn’t relate.

  32. I think there’s a couple things going on. For one, I often masquerade as gender neutral online in several male-dominated activities, especially at first until I know the group (and then sometimes after). So it’s very possible there’s more women than Curious Questioner thinks in his geeky hobby/job, but some of us are sick of dealing with active misogyny and/or being Feminist Professor, Nerd Edition. Also, many of us may enjoy said hobby away from social interaction. I love D&D, but not the active gaming parts. I love world creation and story creation, so those are the bits I focus on.

    I started out in comp sci at a prestigious university for that sort of thing. It sucked. I didn’t mind the work, but the profs were all men, and I got zero encouragement. When I finally approached an awesome female science prof in another field, expressing how disconnected I felt from everyone, she promised to find me a mentor – and couldn’t. Because none of the professors were interested in mentoring, or understood why it might be important to, you know, have contact with a student beyond lecture. (Crappy lectures, I might point out.) And as one of two women in classes of about 80, I felt like I was the Female Representative, Computer Science Edition. I was desperately lonely and disconnected, and I had no interest in things other people loved. So I switched schools and departments. Because there was no way I was going to go into a profession with the same kinds of people teaching and attending my classes. Yes, there were other reasons, too, like the utter lack of out gay people on campus, but that was a huge part of it.

    I’m going back and taking life science courses now. It’s going to be slow, expensive, difficult work to get “on track,” but I feel engaged and excited. This is partly a change in me, and partly kickass profs who are excited when their students are, rather than wishing their students would cease to exist so they could get back to their research. I also still do a tremendous number of “geeky” activities, including computer programming – I’m a serious gamer and I’m working on my first game for release.

    I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot with terms of my main chosen hobby, and I think something else important to consider is that some activities foster aspects that may not appeal to the ways women are socialized. Even if you set aside the boys club that is computer gaming, developed games are often targeted at young men. Entire genres of games don’t appeal to me because I don’t really understand the joys of shooting people from a first person perspective, or simulating football games. Others may have an interesting concept, but are often implemented in such creepy, exploitive ways that I can’t bear to play them. Dating games, I’m looking at you! This isn’t to say women couldn’t or shouldn’t enjoy football games or FPS, but we’re often socialized away from certain sports and shooting things as entertainment. The sports girls are “supposed” to like rarely end up simulated well – despite the hair-trigger controls you’d need to successfully complete a triple toe loop in an ice skating game with a real physics engine, there’s nothing like that on the market. Many games masquerade as girls games, but have creepy easter eggs or nods to the many male players (i.e. women in their underwear or naked). Games that are purely simple graphical puzzles (like Tetris) are free of this sort of thing, but are then derided as “casual gaming,” which is a phrase imparted with a level of derision you might expect to be attached to “slug eater.” And games popular with women (The Sims franchise) are also considered to be lesser by “real” gamers – the ones who play games where there’s shooting.

  33. Annie, that makes me so mad!

    I’m thinking about this more, and I know that I got all of these messages. I’m just not sure why they didn’t stick. I think maybe I heard enough times that girls are just as good and that it’s unjust that they’re expected to be worse at math and science, and it made me really rebellious about it, or something. And even today, when I deal with subtle (or overt) sexism as a scientist, my reaction is generally to rebel and SHOW THEM. But I wonder what went right, since it seems unusual.

  34. Agreed completely, with all of it. I got the “you’re really good at math and science and should be an engineer” messages on the surface from teachers etc., but that doesn’t do much to counteract all the covert messages. It’s sort of a David and Goliath scenario, except David usually loses.

    About the whole Sodini issue…the amazing thing to me is that our general ambient level of misogyny is so strong that people are actually able to misread what happened there as not being in any way motivated by sexism or entitlement. I wrote about it too, for an online magazine, and have already been firmly told by pissed off dudes that in fact Sodini’s problem was that he didn’t feel entitled ENOUGH and put women on too much of a pedestal. What do you say to that other than “wow”?

  35. Thank you so much for this post! You’ve put into words something that’s been bothering me about misogynist images in the media. I’m often accused of overreacting to such things–it’s great to know that I am sane after all. I will be even more of a pain in the ass now as I crusade against such things as rape jokes.

  36. The flip side of the “Math and Science are hard!” attitude that I’ve experienced is the “Oh you’re *just* an Art Major” (currently I’m a Graphic Design major and I’ve studied Interior Design in the past) which implies that because I chose a more “traditionally female” subject as my major I must not be smart enough to hack it in anything else.

    I actually left one college in my early 20’s because I couldn’t study anything aside from design there and I wanted to minor in French and take classes in non-art subjects (aside fromt he 4 or 5 courses total my college offered that weren’t directly design related).

    Great piece. Thank you.

  37. THANK YOU for this, FJ! I feel like I have to plug one of my favorite authors here, too: Spider Robinson wrote a story called “The Paranoid” that’s embedded in the book “Callahan’s Lady,” in which one of the main characters is a woman scientist. Among other insightful passages, I often recall the moment in which the woman says that some of the most prejudiced people she knows (paraphrasing here:) “have multiple degrees in subjects you couldn’t pronounce.” This was written when I was something like five years old, but I didn’t read it until I was in grad school. (He also has some awesome FA moments in that book, FWIW.)

    Both of my parents were always supportive of my academic inclinations; I never questioned biology as my destiny, despite a rocky start to learning calculus. I didn’t have much interest in dating until college, though, and I suspect that I would have opted out of math and science had I accepted the message that studying them would de-feminize me. Starting in college, I’ve gone on dates when my being “smart” was clearly treated as a deficit, although not always explicitly for that reason. (One man expressed anxiety that I was working towards a PhD, while he was happy with his master’s degree.)

    I guess I have internalized this faulty lesson, then: if you are too smart, or into “hard” fields, you are unable to be feminine – or even human. You can’t possibly be capable of high-level science *and* emotion. (Not to distract from that point, but I think the message that objectivity necessitates abandonment of *any* emotion also gets internalized by boys, which just makes things worse for any STEM field.)

  38. The subtlety of misogyny and sexism in society is the reason I didn’t consider myself a feminist until a few years ago. Throughout my life, I received very positive messages about women and their capabilities. My parents and teachers were super supportive and believed I could do anything – be an astronaut, formulate new drugs, write fiction, do theater – ANY thing.

    But in addition to the overt positive messages, there were the quieter ones that Fillyjonk talks about, and I think it just took a few decades for them to build up enough for me to take notice and go “Whoa, not cool.”
    (Plus, I met some real misogynist asswipes in college and was able to see how their ideas and behavior were just amplifications of something that permeates society.)

  39. @Amy, on August 10th, 2009 at 6:24 pm: you can help your kids all the way along, and relearn what you’ve forgotten that way. Right from counting to calculus.

    Julie, on August 10th, 2009 at 8:09 pm Said::The work environment was hostile and sometimes pornographic.

    In publishing, construction and IT I was expected to Just Deal With pornography when it appeared in my working day, put there by my workmates. Constant, constant reminders that I’m not a person, and too uptight about harmless fun to be a proper woman.

    My mother’s school wanted to have her sit higher-level school-leaving maths (Honours Leaving Certificate) but she felt too isolated by the idea. My school had a teacher who started the Honours course, first term, by leaping into material a third of the way into the curriculum and hoping for drop-outs.

    Both all-girls schools.

  40. thank you so much for this post!

    @Cindy I look like my mom, and as a child, my mother would talk about how I was just like her, and she’d talk about how she was terrible at math and taking tests.

    THIS!!! I too look like my mom, and I think my mom sees a lot of herself in me and my personality. We’re both bookish, we’re the fastest readers we know, she was a lawyer before she stopped working to raise me and my brothers, I’m headed to law school, etc etc. But I was good at math in high school, and even though I’d been tracked into the ‘slower’ math class when I was younger (I had graves disease and it seriously affected me until I had the thyroid out after 9th grade, and most of the depression/inability to concentrate disappeared), I made it up through calculus and didn’t make below an A- the entire time. I was good at science, too..I took advanced track physics, AP chemistry, and had my science professors tell me I should be a chem major. I got above the 90th percentile on the math sections of the ACT and SAT and I was really excited to take intro to chemistry when I got to college.

    But my mom STILL talks about how I’m “just like her”: lousy at math, struggling with math, science is too hard…she’s even rewritten my high school experience, trying to commiserate about how we both had a hard time with math in high school. But when she talks about my brother – who took roughly the same courses as me, though he had been tracked into advanced math, and got worse grades but maybe did slightly better on the SAT – it’s all, your brother was so good at math in high school.


    I love my mom. But even as I was excelling in chemistry in high school and really loved it, if I talked about becoming a chemistry major she talked me down, and before I was a ‘fully formed’ person who could recognize these kinds of messages and try to actively ignore them, my belief in my quantitative skills had already been damaged. And by the time I did realize it, well, the damage was done.

  41. despite the hair-trigger controls you’d need to successfully complete a triple toe loop in an ice skating game with a real physics engine, there’s nothing like that on the market.

    I’ve always thought that would be cool! However, I don’t do 3d/physics stuff at all, so I can’t make it.

    I did make an ice-skating game, but due to LONG complicated business-related problems, few people have ever heard of it. And it’s really an action-puzzle game about designing skating programs, not a simulation of doing the actual figure skating.

    It does frustrate me how many mainstream game review mags consider that if girls or women play something it’s obviously not a real game and not even worth reviewing, much less in-theme reviewing that can actually compare these girly games against each other instead of just saying “it’s not a shooty game, 4/10.”

  42. One of the reasons, in retrospect, that I’m so glad that I went to a women’s college is because it was the only place I’ve ever been where the atmosphere was thoroughly pro-woman. That’s not to say that it was a feminist utopia (though, let’s be honest, it was closer than most places), but that the explicit and implicit messages were all about women being full human beings.

  43. I ended up taking geological engineering in university. I was the only female in my highschool to go into engineering in my graduating year. I found that odd.

    I was encouraged from a young age to pursue sciences, which was both great and not so great at the same time, as I have always been passionate about the arts. I was told when I was in highschool that a person can either be good at science or good at the arts. Since I knew that I was good at math and science, that meant that I couldn’t really be good at the arts (even though I was in the highschool band, played piano, and was told by several teachers that I was an excellent writer). But no, I believed this person who told me I couldn’t be good at both.

    As for why I chose engineering, I’m not sure I chose it. There was immense pressure from my parents at the time. It felt like I had to take engineering. In a fit of rebellion, I chose geological, as my parents also thought that would be a mistake (mostly because it was male-dominated). It was my rebellion.

    I don’t regret taking it. I do like my job, but I often wonder what my life would have been like if I had truly felt I could choose whatever I wanted.

    And there is a definite “boys club” mentality to this field that is hard to shake. Some days are easier than others.

  44. When I was in 9th grade, I nearly failed English. (I didn’t write a paper, partly because I disagreed with the premise of the assignment and was unable to articulate that, and partly because I generally have trouble with papers.) I also went to the state level competition in science fair. That was just about the same time as my mom started on her “Men are better at math and science and women are better at English and history!” thing. She would say that all the time. No matter how much trouble I had with papers, no matter how well I did in math, science, and programming. Maybe she thought repeating it over and over would make me realize the error of my ways and start complying with gender stereotypes? My mom was in a male dominated field at the time, and had always encouraged me in science fair, and the generalization totally didn’t apply to me, so it was just confusing and frustrating.

  45. My first post here, but I love this blog.

    I think the whole process worked somewhat backwards in me. In high school, I excelled in math and science, but it wasn’t my “thing”—I was better at writing, music, etc. But I felt like I had to prove myself, so I ended up trying to major in Computer Engineering in college; I like computers, but I found out my first year that I didn’t like them *that* much. But there was pressure on all sides to stay in (and none of it was explicitly expressed): I had a scholarship that I would lose if I changed majors, my dad is an engineer and was always more excited about my engineering prospects than anything, and I had to prove to myself that I was good enough. That I wasn’t going to go into those “soft”, “girly” disciplines, like the liberal arts stuff that I truly enjoyed. Part of this, I suppose, stems from being in Air Force ROTC and being a tomboy; I’ve spent (wasted?) a lot of time trying to excise my femininity. I ended up clinically depressed because of all this shit.

    Fortunately, the university made me take a language class my first semester, and I ended up taking Chinese, which I LOVED. (Note: I was originally going to major in Japanese, but switched when I got my scholarship.) When my doctor finally told me “Stop doing stuff you hate,” I switched majors. Because guess what? I’m good enough no matter what, whether I’m a chick who dropped out of engineering or a woman who speaks Chinese or a female in the military, I’m good enough being true to myself.

    This post is a novel, but my point is: the stereotypes affected me, even when I didn’t realize it. Girls shouldn’t have to prove themselves to be masculine just because femininity is associated with not doing shit. So girls really should be encouraged to do math and science, even if it’s just so people like me can feel like that situation is taken care of, I don’t have to.

  46. Yes about the women’s college making a difference. And now that I’m thinking about it, duh: Girl Scouts. I know councils and troops vary widely in their supportiveness, and that some people did not have positive experiences wth Scouting, but my experiences overall were great, and so I feel like I started getting that feminist empowerment early. The younger troops were not so feminist, but as an older scout in junior high and high school, they did a great job of teaching me that girls are good at science and math, and that society is sexist so you shouldn’t listen to what other people tell you. Hell, I was the only girl in my troop who went to a Wider Op in the arts, because everyone else went to science programs instead.

    The fact that some people really don’t think that Sodini’s behavior was motivated by misogyny, and that that is not, in turn, just a more extreme version of the sexism that permeates the whole culture, well, it makes me want to scream. Once you start seeing it, it’s so obvious that it’s really hard to imagine what it was like before you noticed.

  47. “We hear subtext.”

    This, oh, THIS. Most of the messages I received about myself and my ability were communicated this way: facial expressions, tones of voice, body language.

  48. oops, omission. I meant, the negative messages I received about myself, which undermined the spoken positive ones.

  49. I have also realized, from my own experience and working at a university, women and men have different college experiences. Women are much less likely to complete their degrees in four years, they change colleges more often, and take more time off for reasons having nothing to do with academics, but the system is set up to encourage people who are able, financially, socially, academically, what-have you, to start school, finish four- five years later, proceed diretly to graduate school or to a professional career. Women and the poor are at a disadvantage because when we come out of college we are competing against people who did things the “right way,” and weren’t distracted by children or family obligations or one of the other million concerns that we face.

  50. “it’s about how deeply flawed all teaching of mathematics is in this society”

    Exactly. I’m not sure that I ever saw genuine sexism in math class and I wonder if that’s because all but one teacher were women. What I did witness, particularly in high school, were teachers who were only good instructors if you were someone who excelled in math already. Otherwise they weren’t able to bring it down to a level the average math student could grasp.

    “One of the reasons, in retrospect, that I’m so glad that I went to a women’s college is because it was the only place I’ve ever been where the atmosphere was thoroughly pro-woman.”

    Yes. This. In fact, I would argue that I wasn’t aware of what sexism really was until I went from a women’s college to a coed institution for grad school.

  51. Female only academic environments really can make a difference. My high school was all girls, and even though I didn’t much like the be-an-engineer-your-brains-would-be-wasted-on-the-arts messages I got, there’s no denying that that’s infinately better than just getting the message that women have limited options.

    On the issue of people refusing to admit that Sodini was motivated by misogyny…I recommend only engaging with the people making those claims if you’re feeling particularly strong willed and not depressed at the moment, or you just feel like verbally bashing someone over the head. I made the mistake of following the links that one of the trolls left on my article and yeah, feeling a little ill now.

  52. Also, did anyone else’s parents deliver relatively gender norm free messages during childhood and then do an abrupt about-face after puberty? My dad was pretty much exemplary as far as not pushing gender norms on me as a child, but as soon as I started to look like an adult woman things became very different. And now, in the middle of struggling to establish myself as a journalist (this isn’t a great time for freelancers), he says helpful things like “well you know you were always so pretty and charming, maybe you should give up all these silly ideas and get a nice job in a high end boutique”. Yeah, fuck you too, pops.

    Has this happened to anyone else? I almost wish I had video evidence of how differently he treated me as a child so that I could play it back to him and go “so, how exactly does my developing boobs change the rules?”.

  53. I think my 9th grade teacher tried to tell me i was bad at math. It didn’t stick. I told anyone who would listen (my guidance counselor, my mom, other teachers) that she just couldn’t teach math. They believed me, ’cause i was right.

    I would love it if more women would get their Ham license. It never occurred to me that i couldn’t, and the test literally took me 7 minutes (in a roomful of men, all of whom took 5 times that) and missed a single question. Fun stuff.

    My 7 year old is studying for her license now, too. It would be lovely for more women and girls to get involved.

  54. I remember seeing somewhere (either reading it or in a documentary or maybe both) that often the reason boys will statistically do better in math and science than girls is because of the subtle but also not-so-subtle-once-you-finally-pay-attention-to-it feedback that each gender gets in those subjects from their teachers. The teacher (of either gender) will often go around the room looking at the students’ work, and they’ll tell the girls, “Good job,” “Nice work,” “Wonderful job,” but they’ll tell the boys, “Show your work and write out each step,” “Think about what you’re doing,” “Good start, but don’t forget…” They’re likely to give the boys much more constructive feedback than they are the girls, which on the surface looks like they’re picking on them, but in the long run is making them think more critically and correct their mistakes faster. The girls know they’re doing a “good job,” but they’re never exactly sure what is good about their job, and worse still, if they are actually confused, they don’t feel encouraged to ask for help. (And I don’t think this necessarily only applies to math and science, FWIW. I remember getting this same schtick from a female filmmaking professor I really respected, who I stupidly assumed really respected me too. Joke’s on me.)

    Then I remember (yes, it was partly from a documentary) that a grade-school teacher was being filmed as she taught her math and science classes for one of these exact studies, and later psychologists showed her the tapes and pointed out these exact patterns in her teaching. The incredible thing was that at one point she was explaining a math problem in detail to a couple of boys who had asked a question. However, she was talking to the boys, but holding her finger in a girl’s open textbook as she talked, not even looking at her. The psychologists were like, “Do you see what you’re doing here? You’re teaching the boys. The girl is nothing but an extension of the book, a prop.” Needless to say, she was MORTIFIED. And I thought, “OMFG I totally had grade school teachers who did that to girls ALL THE TIME.” They probably did it to me too, which could be one of many thousands of reasons I am as horrible at math and science as I am.

    This is all a very relevant and terrifying discussion for me right now, as on Wednesday I actually have to take a placement exam in college algebra and trig, so that I can eventually place into a required statistics class. I haven’t done math in eight years. I’m so afraid.

  55. My parents told me I could do anything I wanted to do. They also told me, constantly that girls aren’t as good at math and science as boys are, and women have inferior ability at all things mechanical. Also, that being good at reading and writing are amusing skills, but not very important. And that being good looking is really, really important. And that all women have maternal instinct. And that girls are supposed to be nice and quiet and not make waves.

    I note, also, that my folks are very nice people who thought they were merely spouting common sense and trying to make my brothers “feel better” about getting shitty grades. They weren’t trying to make me feel like a useful freak of nature, but they did.

    Ah, they fuck you up, your mum and dad… and so do a lot of other forces in society.

  56. speaking of overt messages:

    anyone remember former Harvard president Larry Summers claiming that women have a different aptitude for science and math, and that is why there are fewer of them at the top of these fields?

    yeah fuck that guy.

  57. Oh FillyJonk, you have no idea what a gift you have.

    I remember Nicole, one of the young women I graduated high school with, telling me she wanted to be an engineer. We were 17, and I literally had no idea what that meant. I’d never met an engineer. I didn’t know what they did, or what kinds of classes they took to get there. (Amusingly, now I’m married to one…)

    I wasn’t an ignorant person, and I graduated 4th in my class. Ahead of Nicole, come to think of it. But nobody had ever, ever spoken to me about those kinds of careers. I “wasn’t good at math,” so why include me in the discussion? My mother, who responded to any math homework with, “Ugh, I hated math, I was never very good at it” – even though she worked in a bank! – didn’t help.

    And like Amy, math was the only subject I needed real help with. So instead of believing that I should work really hard at it and get better, I said “to hell with it, I’ll concentrate on English and History.” Where things came easy and I always, always pleased my parents and teachers on the first try. This was a stupid (but understandable) decision for a teenager to make, but nobody ever gave me a shred of reason why I should do otherwise. My non-interest and non-ability in math was considered par for the course.

    I probably would not have ever chosen to be an engineer. But that door was closed to me BEFORE I EVEN KNEW IT EXISTED. I was just a kid – how was I to know that was what was happening?

    More importantly, I missed out on learning the tenacity that would come with mastering something that doesn’t come naturally. Like a lot of former “smart kids,” I’ve spent most of my life avoiding truly difficult challenges because I am scared to make mistakes, and scared not to please everyone else. Pushing through in math instead of being subtly and overtly discouraged might have taught me something infinitely more valuable.

  58. “Also, did anyone else’s parents deliver relatively gender norm free messages during childhood and then do an abrupt about-face after puberty?”

    No not really. I think its because I was an only child. Life would have been different with a brother of that I’m sure. And of the two my father was the most egalitarian.

  59. CassandraSays: I’ve seen a bit of that, but my relationship with my parents has some other influences, so it may not be the same thing.

    Lucy: Have you read the book Schoolgirls by Peggy Orenstein? She followed girls at two schools, documenting their lives. If I recall correctly, she saw similar behaviors of teachers towards students, in addition to other problems. Also – don’t be afraid of your upcoming test. As a placement exam, it should be designed to make sure you get the correct educational support – make it work for you, not vice-versa. :-) (And good luck!)

    anothersuzanne: That speech by Larry Summers *still* pisses me off.

  60. fatsmartchick – I’m an only child too and it didn’t help. It really is wierd though because my Dad was extremely egalitarian and vocally proud of my intelligence right up till age 12 or so, then it started to change, and now he won’t shut up about my looks but apparently considers even the idea of my having any non-appearance-related ambitions to be silly.

  61. Possibly relevant data point – I was a tomboy prior to puberty, Dad may simply have been deluding himself that I was somehow a not-girl. His sudden onset of sexism does coincide neatly with my becoming interested in femmey appearance stuff.

  62. Such a timely post for me too: I just applied to work at a casino and had to take a math test a couple hours ago. I was so nervous, but for no good reason…I did great! I was one of few women in the room though.

    It was nice to read this before going though. Got me out of the “i’m bad at math” mode that i must have internalized along the way.

  63. @ stacy: “Like a lot of former “smart kids,” I’ve spent most of my life avoiding truly difficult challenges because I am scared to make mistakes, and scared not to please everyone else.”

    (sorry I don’t know how to italicize.)

    This is the story of my life! I didn’t even connect it or realize other people do it too.

  64. Really well-said. Thank you for this.

    I don’t know if anyone has linked to this yet, but if not, it’s SO relevant.


    I’m coming at it from the perspective of someone who was genuinely bad at math, who tried very hard and could never understand anything more difficult than single-variable algebra and still can’t do long division, for fuck’s sake. And these problems I had were always dismissed as “Girls suck at math.” Then I was told that because I sucked at math, I might as well not pursue careers in (name the field) because everything requires math courses. Instead of helping me find ways around my problems so that I could do things I wanted to do, people just accepted it as a roadblock and left me sitting there with my ass hanging out in the breeze.

    Yeah, you know, thanks a lot, dogfuckers. Thanks for turning the things I am good at and the things I am bad at into a simple assumption that I’m just incompetent. Thanks for the vote of confidence.

    It’s not a certainty, but I bet more boys than girls in my situation would have been offered meaningful assistance, because it would have been assumed that, difficulty or not, they might go on to produce something worthwhile. I, on the other hand, was probably just going to drop out of college to have babies or something.

    Our culture is stupid.

  65. Too many stories to tell about being a year ahead in math class since 7th grade, then hitting calculus, having trouble with the spatial component, having the prof laugh it off because I still had a B average in spite of having had straight As in his classes for the three years before (! ! !), and having my own father say “that’s not my field; I don’t do that sort of thing” (although he has to blame himself, then, for my “I’ll figure it out my own d*mn self” attitude, for whatever values = ‘it”) when I had trouble with my homework.

    *deep breath*

    But what I really came to the post to say was:
    Please send this post to The Atlantic. And WaPo. And Bob Herbert at the NYT.

    Like, now, please. <3

  66. Sweet Machine,

    My partner and i say that if we could flip the do-over switch on our lives, we both would have gone to girls schools for our entire education.

    I went to a Baptist University where I consistently out-performed the men in my Old Testament and New testament courses. I even got free scores on quizzes because I never answered a socratic-method-session question wrong or without being able to recall citation on memory. And yet when we confronted the Pauline view of women, the guys always got the kudos.

    I wish I’d done single-sex education.

  67. One of the things I’m really interested in is how and why some people are lucky enough to keep some of the pollution on the outside. Volcanista mentioned not having been affected by the “boy stuff” label on maths/science/engineering, and I was the same. I also managed to dodge internalising the bulk of the misogynist messages – I see them of course, and they irritate me, but they haven’t much invaded me. I’ve seen all the work place stuff other people mention (especially that “you’re a girl, you do the people interaction” stuff) but I have always assumed that it was *their* fault, not mine. That’s a huge piece of luck.

    Body image messages on the other hand? I invited them in, offered them tea and then apologised for the mess.

    I have some inkling of why I didn’t internalise the misogyny, but it’s only a guess, since whatever it was that shielded me did nothing for keeping out the bad body image stuff. I’d really like to know, because I’d like to repeat my luck for my daughter, as well as improve on it and try to vaccinate against the body image stuff too.

  68. Back in the late seventies, I had a high school chem teacher who was an interesting intelligent fellow, who also felt that women would be happier at home having kids than going into a profession. He was perfectly happy to have me take advanced chem; and he was articulate so I enjoyed his class and him; but he was certainly sexist.

    I do feel a bit guilty for dropping out of a science major to marry and have kids; but honestly I do better working as a team and at least where I was, everyone worked on their own projects. Plus, I’m no good at paperwork, and good science is all about keeping good notes and being organized about them.

    It’s notable that when they do the studies on gender and math, the more equal the society, the better the girls do on math. And I’ve never understood why people think math isn’t creative, that was the part of it I always had the most trouble with; I can follow most logic, but I’m not creative with it. Math has some of the most brainbending, thinking outside the box concepts ever. Infinity, alternate geometries, etc.

  69. I don’t know. I’m an utter stereotype in this arena. Which in itself is really a problem for me because, well who has a link to that comic strip that points out “while an individual man can be bad at math, when a woman is bad at math it’s because she has girlybits! Everyone knows vulvas block the absorption of Stunning Logics!”

    Because yeah, numbers and me? We’re not friends. My brain HATES numbers. It only likes words. As if to drive the point home, when I took a class on beginning logic, I did great and had zero problems when it came to studying logical fallacies, but as soon as we got to the part that was “math problems, but with x, y, and z instead of 1, 2, 3” I was like WTF IS THIS BULLSHIT?!

    I just can’t wrap my mind around the maths, because it’s just too freaking abstract and frustrating and on top of it I was always hitting up against “why do I care about any of this, what does it have to do with my life or anything at all that matters?!” I had the same problem in science. I adored biology and for fun, I used to make complicated Punnet squares in which I would hypothetically breed two mice together (like a dove-point Dutch to a black tan) and then try to calculate what color the resulting babies might be (something I can no longer do because I don’t remember what alleles do anything anymore). But start talking about protons and nuclei and atoms and all that, and my eyes would glaze over. I was all, why do I care if there are atoms in that table or what they are doing? The knowledge of the atoms does not at all affect my experience of the table, PLEASE TALK ABOUT SOMETHING THAT APPLIES TO SOMETHING I CAN SEE AND TOUCH KTHANX.

    So. Yeah. I’m kind of… the woman who the misogynists give as an example when they’re telling all you mathsters how much you should go back to the kitchen and leave the numbers to the big boys.


    The worst part is I totally saw myself as a science geek as a kid, and none of my teachers bothered nurturing that at all, and my math education bit totally… if I’d agreed to go to the Math and Science Center things might have been different for me but I didn’t want to try because everyone told me how hard the math was, and at that point my whole self esteem centered on having A grades and I was afraid. Nobody explained to me that instead of killing me with math I might have, you know, LEARNED TO DO MATH.

    Then again, I’m perfectly happy with where I ended up, so it’s not like I really miss the science geekery, and I can still dabble in it when I feel like it. That’s just, less and less is all, since many of my science geeky friends are male, and I get sick of pats on the head and “isn’t she cute” for Sugar where the same idea from a dude gets “ah, good point!”

  70. Yeah, I had some of the luck of the draw in not internalizing misogyny too; some of it was simply that I could see perfectly well that I could do stuff, so the idea that girls couldn’t do it was ipso facto wrong. I also never wanted to be a boy, if I was told girls weren’t as good at something, then I wanted to be the girl to do it! Made me angry mostly. Part of it is that I’m a social idiot, so I’m bad at most of the girl stuff anyhow; and part of it is that I liked to read all sorts of adventure fiction and found some where girls did cool stuff.

  71. Electrogirl, those symptoms resonate a lot with me. I usually avoid playing new card games and I still remind myself what left or right is by looking at which hand I write with.

    I started really disliking math in highschool, although we had a nurturing teacher, calculus literal gave me psychosommatic mannisfestations of pre-flu symptoms; grade twelve calc was literaly the only class I ever fell asleep in. Despite this I never developed good help seeking habits (my mom simply harassed me to do so, without remembering how shy I was) and failed calc in first year of my undergrad.Which essentially killed my plans of a career in life sciences.I later found out I wasn’t the only girl from that math class who flamed out spectacularly in first year. Makes me suspect an inflated grade scale in that class(she had a 98 in the class, I had 75).

    I wish there was greater support for not only girls but also the detection of learning disabilities that would make math less of a roadblock to success.

  72. (((SugarLeigh)))

    My experience as an adult is very similar to yours – and I would caution anybody who thinks that girls-only education is an automatic cure-all here. I was a very smart little girl who was very good at Maths and science (I still have the medal I won in the STAV Science Talent Search when I was eleven! /geek). Then I went to a Catholic girls’ high school for two years, where the emphasis was on producing good little home-makers – two years of being bored out of my brains repeating the same fractions and basic algebra over and over at the pace of the slowest students in the class, and spending science classes learning about how teh baybeez develop, and maybe getting to play with the bunsen burners if we were *very good*. By the time I was yanked back into the public education system, I was a thoroughly cranky, exasperated and anti-school fourteen-year-old who was a) totally behind where I should have been in maths and science and b) far too rebellious and ‘cool’ to ask for any help in catching up. Ergo, my development in the ‘hard areas’ of the curriculum pretty much went permanently bang. I could reach back in time and smack myself, I really could, but even more I’d like to smack the teachers who were in charge of me.

    Eventually I grew up and went to university and eventually became a PhD student in Medieval Studies (good thing shitty!Catholic!school couldn’t have stopped me from learning literature and history without poking my eyes out and tying me up in a sack!), but due to general geekdom I also ended up with a *lot* of friends in programming, maths and various sciences. I love what I do very, very much, but it is frustrating to sometimes feel like people are pigeonholing me as the stereotype of a ‘fluffy-headed humanities student’ – the kind of person the nasty little tagline on the bottom of xkcd comics, “this comic occasionally contains… advanced mathematics (which may be unsuitable for liberal-arts majors)” is directed towards – and we all know how that that fluffy liberal-arts stereotype geeks like to laugh about is gendered…

  73. It is also possibly worth pointing out that the shitty maths and science education, which kept to the most basic possible elements of the curriculum and steered away from the ‘hard’ areas of maths and science as much as possible, was being delivered with plenty of stridently cheerful lip service to the ‘Rah! Rah! Girls can do ANYTHING!’ mantra that was being peddled in the late 80s/early 90s. I’m afraid the teachers really may not have been bright enough to realise the irony…

  74. When I was in high school, I was in advanced geometry class with few girls. I struggled in the class because not only was it difficult, I was given little encouragement or opportunity to perform better. Due to this, I got a D and went down to regular level algebra the next year.
    I also never took math in college, which is biting me in the butt now since I have to take statistics to enter the grad program I’m thinking about.

  75. Count me in as another gal with dyscalculia! I went through my entire life without ever hearing about it, without anyone having the slightest inkling that there might be a larger issue.

    It wasn’t until college, when I worked as a cashier in a busy store, that I googled “math dyslexia” to see if there was such a thing. I noticed that if I was in a rush or just not paying complete attention to the numbers on the screen, I often reversed the digits I saw. When I found the list of symptoms for dyscalculia, I realized I had nearly every one: my verbal skills had always been advanced, I was good at science as long as math wasn’t involved; it took me forever to learn to tell time as a child; I could not comprehend or give standard directions unless landmarks were involved; I was incapable of doing mental math; I couldn’t learn to sight-read music (no matter how much I studied); I could not follow aerobic instructions; I had difficulty telling right from left without thinking about it…

    I’m sure part of the reason I was never diagnosed was because, even now, it is not a well known learning disability, but I’ve always thought that if I had been a boy, and someone thought it was important that I couldn’t do math or play sports, I might have stood a chance of getting help and perhaps might have found a way to appreciate math.

  76. adored biology and for fun, I used to make complicated Punnet squares in which I would hypothetically breed two mice together (like a dove-point Dutch to a black tan) and then try to calculate what color the resulting babies might be (something I can no longer do because I don’t remember what alleles do anything anymore).

    But SL, this is totally math! It sounds more like you just don’t like the subject, not like your brain can’t handle mathematical concepts. :)

  77. In 1994, as a single parent of a daughter, I once shushed my own mother who started to tell my nine year old (who was struggling with 3rd grade math) that “Boys are better at math than girls”. I literally clamped my hand over my mother’s mouth mid-sentence and said “Don’t you tell her something that isn’t true!”. Privately, I informed my mother that my child has never heard those stereotypes uttered from my mouth, and I expected her to respect my decision to give her every opportunity to find her own strengths and success.

    This parental mindset (my own) stemmed from a childhood growing up in a family of 6 girls and 1 boy (the youngest). My brother and I were only 15 months apart, yet he was treated as superior in every way. I recognized the imbalance of this at a young age and could never reconcile this injustice…..especially when I knew I could (and did) kick his ass any time I felt like it….probably still can :).

    I saw my brother abuse his “power” by lieing about an infraction myself or another sister supposedly committed. All the “girls” were given “women’s work” to do around the house except him. When doing the dishes was passed down to me (the last girl) I had to do them until I moved out and was never able to pass that chore down to him. He was given his own room when he was 6 while the rest of us crammed into 2 other bedrooms or moved out. I even had the fortune of having my dad tell me, to my face, the night before one of my sisters’ wedding (and more than a few beers later) that “If [your brother] had been born first, we would have never had the rest of you girls”. Thanks Dad. Way to diminish my value and worthiness.

    So, as an adult with some power over the course of her life, and that of her girl child, I chose a path closer to equality and justice. I have never bore male children and never will at this point, but I have taken on the challenge of helping my girls navigate through a “man’s” world as best I can.

    I was never more proud then when my oldest daughter, married May 22nd btw, chose her vows with her fiance. I had no clue what she and he would declare and make a promise to during their wedding. What they settled on spoke volumes to me about the way in which I raised my daughter. Their vows were based on equality….neither of them claiming the title of “head of household”….and responsibilities, duties, decisions, communication, support, and encouragement were to be shared and given as equally as possible and with mutual respect and love. Through my tears, I nodded my head in total joy and agreement….feeling for one split second that I had done something right while raising her. My “religious” sisters in attendance clucked their tongues in disagreement, but my husband and I squeezed each other’s hand tightly, honored that they both really thought about the kind of marriage they wanted…and that she found someone who believed the same way.

    I am still a long way from being male/female neutral. Being raised by southern parents, who had precise ideas of gender roles, makes this a continual struggle. Though gender inequality is easy to spot, I often find myself leaning toward the stereotypes and have to fight to reverse it.

    In my view, much of the dehumanizing of females could be avoided if everyone TRULY valued the caretaking, nurturing, childrearing, and caring for the home roles that many women have. If it was truly viewed as a valuable asset to life, then men would eagerly participate and support it. But since it is often seen as demeaning, unimportant, undignified, brainless work, then those who are most associated with those roles will never be valued. Attaching a dollar figure to the work many women often do shakes things up for a time, but never permanently.

    Until then, I will go on pointing out these inequalities to my husband and girls. I will continue to buy chemistry sets, bug catchers, train sets, remote control cars, and banish Barbie, Bratz, and all other over the top, totally girls only toys. When I say no to Barbie/Bratz, I always tell my daughter that they depict women in an unrealistic way, in my opinion, and if she still wants one, she can buy it when she has moved out. (this is totally my own thing, and I don’t expect her to never play with them at her friends’ house, but the foundation is there).

    I wish there were an easy answer, but the small steps I take in raising my girls and informing my husband, are the things I do now to balance roles.

  78. CassandraSays mentioned the parents giving a gender-neutral message before puberty and then a very gender-conforming message after–and I really do think that was my experience. (It’s quite a bit worse because I identify genderqueer, and my parents aren’t even a tiny bit supportive of this.) My sisters and I always excelled in math and science and were always expected to excel, and our parents were always willing to give us information on fossils or anatomy–but as we got older, we were praised less for those accomplishments and engaged with less in those fields, while our math-and-science parents praised our writing or our art. It might be because our parents felt less competent to excel themselves in those fields–but I do know that I might not have majored in English if my parents hadn’t told me since I was eleven that I was a writer. (Now that my middle sister is a geology major, however, my dad has returned to engaging with her and her passion for rocks.)

  79. I dunno, Volcanista… I mean, for one semester, I was a computer science major. I really liked programming. But you had to be a Math minor to be a CS major, and that was what killed it for me… I was being tutored by the head of the math department and I tried, oh my goodness I tried, but I barely passed the most elementary level of Algebra the school offered. It was like, baby Algebra, for babies and the maths-stupid.


  80. I can’t really parse my own experience growing up, except to say that even now, 30 years after I entered college, my very sexist and fat-hating father is *still* giving me shit about not becoming an engineer.

    However, I wound up as a writer for a Soul-Destroying Corporation at the Heart of the Military-Industrial Complex (SDCHMIC) (and if you want to talk about marginalization, try being a non-engineer, non-finance person in an engineering corporation). But I had a point somewhere! Oh yes, it’s that all the SDCHMICs are actually getting desperate. All the old white guys are retiring, and there is no stream of young white guys to replace them. Not only are there just fewer white guys available overall, the ones who exist are not choosing to go into STEM professions. An added problem is that because of the type of work we do, the engineers need to be U.S. citizens, cutting down the potential pool even further. So my company and others like it are doing all they know how (admittedly, not very much) to encourage women and people of color to consider STEM professions. I expect to see more emphasis on this in the next few years, since we all know how the demands of the marketplace drive changes in education.

    The problems aren’t going to magically disappear, but it’s going to be a better time for women to become engineers, is what I’m saying.

  81. Echo – Hanging out with girls was mean and competitive. Hanging out with boys was comfortable. I didn’t actually discover the power of female company until I was in my 20s.

    This is absolutely me, although I’m still working on discovering the female company. I also somehow avoided internalizing a lot of the “girls can’t do science” messages, although like everyone else I’m not really sure why that happened for me. My mother is very language-oriented and my father is very scientific, so they both fit the stereotypes, but I got both their aptitudes, and egotistical as it sounds, am good at pretty much everything. They always told me so, and I think being the cute little blonde girl who was always top of the class (and was an elite athlete) meant that most of my teachers were very encouraging as well.

    When I was in primary school, I won a national science competition – and then I won the same competition again in high school. Now I work as a programmer, and I’m studying maths for fun. I actually suspect there’s a component of rebellion in there – since everyone says girls can’t be good at science, I’LL SHOW THEM!

    I have absolutely experienced the “female as oddity” thing though – I had a job once where the (male) team leader said more or less straight out that he hired me because he’d always wanted a female programmer (yeah, eww).

    Stacy – Like a lot of former “smart kids,” I’ve spent most of my life avoiding truly difficult challenges because I am scared to make mistakes, and scared not to please everyone else.

    I absolutely relate to this too. In fact, it almost made me cry to see someone summarize my feelings so perfectly – I always thought it was just me! In my last year of high school I chose to drop to an easier maths level, because getting the great marks I was used to in the higher class required work, and so I thought I wasn’t smart enough for it. Of course, I came top of the class at the lower level and now regret that decision. And even now, a lot of my self esteem is tied up in being the smart girl.

    Then at uni I had a fantastic female (feminist) maths teacher and realized that I can do it, it just requires a little more work for me than most things (which generally require almost no effort). I decided that actually, that’s a GOOD thing, and now I’m doing a maths degree. However, I still put a lot of pressure on myself to get excellent marks (my goal is a 90% course average), and occasionally I have a panic attack about not being able to “get it” as easily as I think I should, and worry about not achieving the marks I want. Mostly those marks are to prove to myself that I can, that I am really as smart as I think I am, but I guess there’s also an element of “unless I really kick ass at this, I won’t be taken seriously”. Despite being about halfway through now and having my average smack on 90%, I still feel like that’s not good enough, or that I’m somehow an imposter, and I’m not really as smart as I seem. Its very weird, but doing this degree is turning out to be a growing experience for me in more ways than just learning the maths.

  82. The kinds of hobbies that are math- and science-related often seem to have a bunch of expensive equipment to buy. If I’m a kid, and I want to do ham radio, I need stuff to build a radio with, right? And say my parents consciously think I, as a girl, should be able to get into that. But since they also have been raised in the patriarchy, like everyone else, subconsciously they think I should be doing something different. And they might be less likely to spend the money than they would if I were a boy.

    I was in the Math/Science/Technology Center in high school. It was a four-year, half-day program for 26 kids in each class from the intermediate school district (two counties) to learn accelerated math, science and technology curriculum. My class had about the same number of girls as boys; we may have even outnumbered them slightly. (We were the class of 2000; most of the earlier classes seemed to have been primarily male.) The girls all came from families that were highly supportive and encouraging of our pursuit of math and science, as were most of our teachers. And the boys were all better at, just to pull an example out of the air, programming in BASIC than the girls were.

    The boys’ families had also all bought computers earlier than the girls’.

    Maybe I’m wrong about this. But it makes sense to me.

  83. SugarLeigh, go read the article about teaching math that I linked upthread and see if it resonates with you at all. I suspect that you’re just a classic victim of rotten math teaching.

  84. There was actually a study that came out a couple of months ago that showed that where math is thought to be a skill someone acquired as opposed to being innate, men and women performed equally.

    In terms of internalizing societal messages, I managed to miss all the ones about what women were supposed to do but really got all the ones about what women were supposed to look like. I think part of it was that I skipped two grades when I was little so I always assumed that stuff about people’s brains didn’t really apply to me. My parents are both in the same field (albeit they do different things in clinical psych) so the only thing I didn’t want to do when I grew up was go into psychology. Also, the only time I got help with math was after a 2 month long absence due to mono and my tutor generally didn’t work with people who didn’t have trouble with math so praise was heaped on me for how quickly I picked things up.

    In terms of male-dominated areas, I would add philosophy to the mix. It’s not hard to go into philosophy and be female if you want to study the more traditionally female subjects (ethics, applied ethics, bio-ethics, feminism) but females that do heavily analytic philosophy are facing an incredibly male dominated arena (I think most phil depts overall are male dominated). I actually had a horribly mysoginistic second reader for my master’s defense. I think that was part of what pushed me into legal philosophy for my PhD (plus metaphyscis just didn’t keep me up at night the way legal phil does). I’m a bit of an outlier in legal phil though because I do come from a much heavier standard analytic background than most others and that infiltrates my work.

  85. Elizabeth, I just finished reading that article you linked, and I thought it was so beautiful and spot on!

    I was very lucky with one particular teacher in primary school (year 5) who encouraged us to discover things on our own – I can still recall the excitement and satisfaction of “discovering” Pythagorus’s theorum and the Fibbonacci sequence, although of course I didn’t know that was what they were called at the time!

    And he’s also right that this is missing in the majority of maths classes (even in the undergrad ones I’m taking at the moment). He’s hit on why I feel a bit unsatisfied with my current classes, as well as on why I was attracted to maths in the first place. I’ve always felt that while I’m very logical, I’m also very creative, but its hard to convince people of your creativity and imagination when you’re studying maths!

    My favourite quote from the whole thing – Mathematics is the music of reason


    And now I plan to go and Google the history of mathematics, so I can give my studies the context they deserve!

  86. Sometimes, the messages aren’t so subtle, or from men.

    Fortunately, I didn’t take it seriously when my very old lady high school advisor told me, in 1979, “Oh, you’re so pretty, you won’t need to go to college.” Nobody is so pretty they can just be ignorant and expect to have a decent life just being decorative.

    I had to figure out college track courses on my own, and I managed. At the same school, there was a fabulous male math teacher, similar vintage as the lady, who was exceedingly supportive of everyone. He was an ex-boxer, and had the attitude that if he could do it, you could do it. Sadly, I was too frightened of failure to go very far in math or science.

  87. Wow, Elizabeth, I’m not all the way through that paper yet but it’s REALLY something. I still hate math, but … I dunno maybe that’s because of what math “did to me” more than what math IS.

    Another thing I’m blown away by is that dyscalculia link… many (not all but many) of those symptoms apply to me. For instance I get made fun of for my sense of direction a lot and need a minute (and generally counting) to figure out what time it is on a non-digital clock. I use my fingers or a paper to do calculations, I can’t do them in my head at all.

    Now, I did do great in music and band and was top-notch at reading and even writing music (don’t remember how to do either anymore of course but I WAS once). And some of them I can’t really tell what they mean enough to know if that’s me or not. But it’s interesting to see how many of those do apply to me.

    I don’t know. I might be dissatisfied to not be able to sputter in a frustrated ball of incoherent writhing hatred of the brain-melting effects of maths after all these years. It’s too deeply socialized into my vagina brain at this point. XD

  88. In my experience, parents can make a positive difference. I managed to absorb the idea that boys are better at math than girls by the time I was in third grade. I remember because that’s when I totally shocked my mother by telling her I was surprised that I got the high score on a math test, because I thought it would be one of the boys. She immediately gave me a stern talking-to, and made sure I understood that gender did not determine math ability (with my own recent high score as Exhibit A). The incident made a big impression – I’m talking about it many years later, after all – because she felt so strongly about what she was saying and because it made so much sense once I thought about it. The problem was, I hadn’t ever thought about it before, and that’s what’s so insidious about the background noise.

    On the other hand, I have to ask myself: If I’d been older when the issue came up, would I have listened? If I hadn’t been particularly good at math, could I have been convinced that math ability wasn’t gender-related? If I’d faced more overt sexism from my teachers, would a talk from Mom have been enough? So parental support goes a long way, but there’s always a bit of luck involved.

  89. This article, like many feminist articles I’ve read, makes me seriously wonder if I grew up in the same world other women did. I grew up in the US in the 60’s so it’s not like misogyny wasn’t around… it was everywhere, but I didn’t notice it. Moreover, I still can’t see it when I look back. I’m not blind and I see it all over the place now, but I can’t detect it in my childhood or schooling.

    My parents thought I was very smart and good at math and were very clear I could do whatever I wanted. Not just in the la-la live your dreams sort of fantasy, but in the drive me to math meets all over the state and put up a with a lot of crap so my Westinghouse entry would be perfect sorts of ways. Clearly, they really believed what they were saying. Throughout high school, college and grad school I felt encouraged by my teachers and certainly encouraged/pushed towards higher and higher academics. I ended up in physics undergrad and astrophysics for grad school, later switched to a career in medical engineering (designing imaging systems), because I wanted to eat something other than ramen and also realized I sucked at the political aspects of academia. I’ve since retired to pursue an artistic endeavor.

    This isn’t to contradict the truth of what FJ has written (and that so many others seem to have experienced). Not even sure exactly why I’m commenting, but I read this about girls being considered weak at maths or incapable of science and my mind boggles. Frankly, if you’d asked me growing up I would have told you girls were good at maths and boys… not so much.

    One other small point for Stacy and any one else that wrote about relating to this:
    Like a lot of former “smart kids,” I’ve spent most of my life avoiding truly difficult challenges because I am scared to make mistakes, and scared not to please everyone else.

    I’d like to suggest (if it’s ok to plug a book… I have no financial interest in it) checking out Ken Christian’s book Your Own Worst Enemy. It’s about how gifted children often grow up into under-achieving adults because they spend too much time protecting their status as ‘gifted’ rather than taking on those challenges. It helped me immensely.

  90. @randomquorum
    And now I plan to go and Google the history of mathematics, so I can give my studies the context they deserve!

    Since I seem to be plugging books tonight… might I suggest Journey Through Genius: The Great Theorems of Mathematics by William Dunham? It’s a wonderful trip through the history of some of the pivotal theorems with great little anecdotes about each one. Who can resist a book Asimov called “mathematics presented as a series of works of art”

  91. I was in TAG in school so I got to go on all the awesome science field trips, and so I always loved science. In high school I even wanted to be a physicist, but I always had trouble in math. I was bored in the math at my grade level, so I took advanced math, but even though I was excited at trying to figure out the problem on my own, the other kids would finish before me and shout out the answer and the teacher would do it on the board and move on before I could finish. So I thought I was stupid at math and held myself back and eventually failed and stopped taking math entirely. And at my school you had to have a certain math to have a certain science. I wasn’t taking the math, but my best grades were still in science. Nevertheless, I decided that meant science would eventually be too hard for me and so I ended up with a language major.

  92. I am a computer scientist who ENTERED computer science in part because I wanted to escape girls. […]
    I think in retrospect what I was feeling was similar to what a lot of people feel — adolescents are vicious creatures, and rather than attempt to survive in the jungle, I chose to reject it entirely and build a world where I was always an outsider who could interact on my own terms. With so few women in CS and geek-techie pursuits, I never felt like I was in competition with anyone but myself.

    Echo, that is beautiful and true and EXACTLY what I did only I didn’t know that at the time. Wow.

  93. I clicked through and read the comments posted on Alas. The douchehound comments that show up on fat-related articles make so much more sense now, in a fucked up sort of way. Once I wrapped my brain around the idea that, yes, there really are people who confuse rights with getting laid by whoever they want, then of course those guys are going to think that fat people cannot and should not have rights, because they refuse to fuck us.

    Okay, I lied; I still haven’t totally wrapped my brain around the idea that there really are people who think getting laid is a right. It’s too messed up to really comprehend.

  94. This post has made me wonder about something-I know I must have a learning disability when it comes to Math, but I was never tested. Just in order to pass math starting in the fifth grade, I had to have tutors every summer, which sucked. In middle school, math class stressed me out so much that I would have migraines that would send me to the nurses’ office throwing up. By high school, I cried with frustration almost every day in math. Did a teacher ever once ask me what was wrong? Was I ever offered tutoring by my teachers? Was I ever told that I was okay and to just try instead of stressing out? Not once by a teacher. I don’t think any amount of concern would have made me a math star or even good at math, but I do know that if the message I received from the teachers was that I didn’t matter and that I was stupid, then perhaps at least I wouldn’t have gotten so sick. What makes me so angry now is realizing that if I had gotten testing and it had been proved that I have a learning disability, then I could have received some benefits that would have helped me immesely. But a girl crying everyday and making herself sick? Well, that’s just what girls do, right? Because they can’t handle the numbers!!!

    On a brighter note, I have gotten a lot better with age, as using numbers in the real world of retail, has helped my math ability a lot, because I understand how to apply it. Which proves that I am not stupid, but that the teachers should have tried changing their teaching tactics every once in a while. Not everyone can understand numbers when they are just presented as a theory with no real meaning.

  95. Wow! So I read the other comments and am about to read about that learning disability, because it seems like it would fit. Because the thing is, I LOVE science! And the reason I was so frustrated is because I KNEW I was smart. It was like there was a trigger that wasn’t firing in my brain and I wanted so desperately to learn how to pull it, but no one was willing to fully investigate what my problem was. In fifth grade, I did a book report on Stephen Hawkings and his theories about black holes. So shit, I just constantly felt cheated!

    Although I am VERY good at sightreading. Then again, I’ve been playing piano since I was seven and took lessons for thirteen years and completed a music minor, so I should be. But my dad has never understood why I didn’t do better at math, especially fractions, when I can look at sheet music and almost instantly know the piece and can play/sing it. Then again, I’ve never understood why music wasn’t incorporated into teaching math, when it is so fundamental to learning how to play. Teachers seem convinced that the only way to teach fractions is with pie and pizza graphs, but if someone had taught me fractions by using a time signature instead? Shit! Maybe I’d be well-rounded!

  96. haha I promise I’ll stop commenting now, but I just realized that in fifth grade when they were teaching fractions, I was anorexic, so maybe that was part of the problem too…Pies and pizzas were certainly something I tried to block out. Of course, I was never diagnosed until college… So sad…

  97. Yep, KC, I felt the same way about math in school, it was a nightmare. I’ve been diagnosed with a learning disability (nonverbal learning disorder) and I literally can’t do math– I count on my fingers most of the time. The diagnosis did help, because it allowed me to get more time on tests. But, at 17, it definitely came way too late.

  98. I need to get this off my chest.

    Clicking through the channels at about 7 pm tonight, I inadvertently stopped on some sit com with Charlie Sheen in it. The scene: he and a woman are at dinner in a restaurant, and the woman has just downed a glass of champagne that Charlie had put an engagement ring into (swallowing the ring, natch). He starts bitching at her. They exchange one-liners, culminating with this, from the woman:

    “Yes, I swallow things! That’s one of the reasons you love me!”

    7 pm. On a weeknight. Somewhere a nine year-old boy just learned that you ‘love’ women who ‘swallow.’

    Makes me want to fucking puke. Or go beat the shit out of whoever produces and broadcasts this asinine crap.

  99. thank you for this post i’m this isn’t mentioned enough these days i’m trying my best to raise my two daughters (fraternal twins) to be individuals that can do absolutely anything and to be self reliant and independent and not need a man for anything as they grow up in a world seemingly slanted in a man’s favor (something i didn’t think twice about until I had girls). I’ve never given them a barbie or a doll baby as to me it paints an inaccurate image of what a woman should look like and a woman’s role, they’re 7 years old and so far they’ve only received books and gender neutral toys, for presents typically I just buy them stuff that educations based like a planetarium light show that projects planets on the walls when its dark out. Is there anymore I should be doing?

  100. I suppose I lucked out – I went to an all-girls high school where excellence was demanded, be it in English, science, maths or computing. Classmates have gone on to be engineers, public servants, computer scientists… one is doing her doctorate as a nuclear physicist.

    But I know we are lucky. The world tells us we shouldn’t be good at some things, and we have women teaching us to find our excellence and revel in it – even if it wasnt very feminine.

  101. I don’t disagree with the things you all are saying, but I don’t think you’ve yet hit on the crux of the problem.

    As someone who has generally been encouraged in math/science, succeeded in a top university in STEM, went to another top university for my PhD and now another one for my postdoc and is in a great position for a faculty job in my field, I think the main problem is that the history of most STEM jobs as being for men has allowed them to become ridiculously time consuming.

    The next few years of my career will require extremely long hours and tons of energy to succeed, at a time when I’d like to start thinking about having a family (I’ll be 30 next week, and this “crunch” will last 6-8 years). Men deal with this in three ways – they cut everything out of their lives, they have the support of a largely stay-at-home spouse, or they let aspects of their work lives slide (and the easiest part to let slide is your interaction with other people – teaching, mentoring the people in your lab, and serving on committees).

    I think women grow up hearing that none of those three strategies are acceptable/possible. Leaving aside the baby issue, I think the last one is an under-recognized problem for women. We are taught, in all the subtle ways many people here have mentioned, that it’s not okay to not try your hardest. The women who succeed in male dominated fields are overachievers and perfectionists who feel a deep sense of duty to mentor and serve, and that makes the choice between work and the rest of your life much more acute.

  102. OT (but you did link to the article at Alas, FJ!) – this whining from one of the PUA types linked from Amp made me laugh out loud:

    As an aside:
    Have you guys noticed a trend in fat women? Some of the ones I have spoken to actually believe they can get alpha cock. They don’t want to hook up with beta men either. This is a troubling development.

    Fat women with confidence shocker! I love that FA is a “troubling development” – anything that troubles the misogynists like this has got to be good news for women. (For god’s sake, don’t actually read the rest of the Alas article as the quotes will sear your soul.)

    I suffered from bad Maths teaching and bad Physics teaching, which meant that I dropped Physics as soon as I could, at age 14. Since I only had GCSEs in Biology and Chemistry, I couldn’t realistically consider a career in a scientific field without going back and doing Physics. I absolutely believe no one should be allowed to drop one of the sciences before GCSEs – it limits your choices hugely at A Level/University.

  103. And going back to the childhood experiences, how many girls are bought Meccano or Lego sets, or chemistry sets, or electronics kits, or any of those technical toys that are de rigeur for boys? I got a chemistry set when I was 11, because I begged for months. And that was it. I never got one of those “assemble a fighter plane” kits I desperately wanted though. Damn Paint By Numbers pictures of frigging horses.

    I’ll also echo the remarks that others have made about the preponderance of men in the classrooms, training courses and workplaces in technical industries. You have to be pretty determined or focussed to put up with having limited numbers of peers (in one sense, at least) in your work and study environments. I’m a dyke, and am very determined to defend my professional turf, and I find it hard work at times dealing with men men men. More conventional women could find it even more challenging to asset themselves in that kind of environment.

  104. Paradigm-shifting writing, FJ.

    When I was little, I wanted to be an astromoner. When I was older, the joke I would tell was, “when I was little, I wanted to be an astromoner. Until I knew how much math was involved.”
    Sad, because I’ve never been bad at math, and I’ve almost always liked it. My high school math teacher (a friend of my parents who later came to my wedding) told me there was no use in my taking calculus because I didn’t need it and I would just be frustrated. I didn’t care about my grade, I was just interested in it, but didn’t end up taking it. I’m mad, because that was my chance to try to grapple with the subject before college. RRRrrrrr.
    Now, I like math. I get math — through trigonometry, anyhow.
    I also love biology. (I did have a microscope growing up, and plenty of encouragement in science as a younger kid.)
    If I could turn back the clock, I would have figured out a way to go to med school at some point. (that would take more than clock turning, but I’m allowed to regret and dream at the same time,)
    I do think that my parents both being more on the humanities/social sciences side of things influenced me, along with this that Linnea said:
    “This is partially because when I was doing pure tech, I also had to do the touchy feely communications stuff because the men weren’t expected to–they just weren’t good at it. Finally I decided I’d rather do one job than two.”
    I think we are swimming in this, too — in addition to whatever else is expected of us as women, what we take on career-wise, and in our careers, is “add on” — I know that I think about my obligations as a mom, a wife (yucky, but true), a daughter, sister, friend, community member — and worker — not to mention all of the self care, whether in order to look presentable (and I don’t even wear makeup) or manage diabetes and the other health conditions I’ve been diagnosed with. Sometimes it’s better if no one, including me, learns what I’m *really* good at, or I’ll just have more to do, and no more time to do it in, or anyone taking other stuff off of my plate.

    Also, in terms of swimming in it — I’m not sure how to respond when my 4 and a half year old daughter cries that she doesn’t want to take off her dress because she won’t look beautiful without it on. Partly I know she’s resisting going to bed (pajamas come first) but she really thinks that, too. I tell her “you always look beautiful, no matter what you are wearing” and “you don’t always have to look beautiful.” What can I say so a 4-year-old will get that it’s not her job to look beautiful? And why wouldn’t she think it is her job to look beautiful, when that’s the first and only thing said to/about her by people who don’t know her?
    Her dad has something down here — he tells her all of the time that she’s strong. I tell her she’s smart and funny and imaginative and strong and I love her drawings. But there’s no getting around that she’s beautiful.

  105. Ah, true, SL, I wasn’t saying you must be innately good at math, because you say you have a lot of difficulty handling numbers. What I said was that you are clearly good at understanding mathematical concepts, as long as they are in an applied context. That means your brain CAN do math, just maybe not the way it’s taught.

    I thought your description of learning about atoms was funny. I love learning about atoms, because the way they work is the whole reason stuff is the way it is! It’s neat. Chemistry and math are all like a big logic puzzle for my brain.

  106. I am a female engineer who was encouraged throughout my life to pursue sciences and mathematics by my parents (a civil engineer and a banker) as well as my teachers in those subjects.

    Until my third year of university, I never experienced any discouragement and to me, it seemed that women had made great strides and were finally being accepted in a formerly male-dominated occupation. How wrong I was! In third year, we were required to specialize. While many women in my class went into civil, chemical, or electrical engineering, I went into mechanical, where I was one of five girls in a class of 65.

    Out of the woodwork came a host of sexist professors, who made jokes about their wives’ moodiness and womens’ weight (“The girl riding the bicycle in this problem is 65 kilos…that’s a little heavy, if you ask me!”) What saddened me was that I seemed to be the only female in the class annoyed by these remarks- it was as though the other women were accepting this sexism as part and parcel of the profession.

    On two of my three workterms, I was forced to make complaints about sexual harassment. While my male bosses took my complaints very seriously in both cases (thank god for decent men) and punitive measures were taken in the second case, the HR manager at the first worksite all but dismissed my complaint. When I reported the harassment to the university’s co-op coordinator, she did nothing more than offer me a sympathetic glance and say, “Oh, that’s terrible!”

    Following graduation, I was very lucky to find work in a female-friendly environment, with a boss who not only respected women, but abhored the old school engineering attitude with every fibre of his being. However, he could not prevent me from experiencing discrimination when I was carrying out contracts in the offshore petroleum industry. When I was living on little inspection boats for weeks at a time, often as the only female on the crew, I was subjected to criticisms of my qualifications, as well as rumours about my sexual affairs with other crew members.

    I finally decided that I couldn’t take it anymore. I quit my job in October 2008, and have not worked in engineering since. I am on a hunt for a career that jives more with my personality and my values. While I realize that I had the power to “stick it out” and be an inspiration to women who are newly joining the field, I refuse to be a martyr at the cost of my own sanity and well-being.

    I think that there are many women like me, who are very competent and willing to work in sciences, mathematics, and engineering, but simply aren’t willing to be beaten down on a regular basis in a male-dominated field for the sake of changing the dynamics of the field for future generations. Those who do stick it out for a true love of the field have my utmost respect and best wishes.

  107. And going back to the childhood experiences, how many girls are bought Meccano or Lego sets, or chemistry sets, or electronics kits, or any of those technical toys that are de rigeur for boys?

    See, one of my first toys when I was very small was a ball-and-stick chemistry model, but that was just because my parents were poor grad students and I thought molecular models were the Best Toy Ever. Plus, I think it amused them that their three-year-old daughter could identify a benzene ring. I had no idea what benzene *was*, mind you, but I knew that it was that particular shape. :-)

    I’m another one on the side of “never internalized the girls-don’t-do-science” message, but that’s mainly due to my family. My mother is a scientist. My grandmother was a computer programmer in a decade when that was a pretty darn rare profession even for men. And I got thrown into all the advanced-placement science courses and camps and such.

    But besides the fact that beyond the conceptual shininess I just don’t really enjoy math very much and so dropped it once I discovered linguistics, looking back, most of the science-niftiness that was available to me was curricular. There’s a big push in many school systems now to get girls interested in math and science. But it’s all so that they can grow up to be scientists. Not geeks. There was definitely still the strong social push that gaming and ham radio and amateur astronomy and all those math-and-science hobbies were very much a boy thing. Girls are supposed to be delicate, frilly, feminine scientists. Preferably working with cute animals or small children. Or at least doing pure mathematics or other ivory-tower academics. Certainly not electrical engineering or something messy like that.

  108. I have both a math and computer science degree, and now work in Healthcare Informatics. Like others on the thread, somehow I was able to ignore the boys label on the math and science classes, though it really became obvious fast during college as the number of girls in my classes rapidly dwindled. Now in the workplace, I am nearly always the only female in the room, unless we’re meeting with others outside our area. In my entire unit, I’m the only female software engineer.

    I think others on the thread have said this. The difficulty isn’t in my capability to do my job, in fact I excel at it and always recieve stellar reviews. The difficulty is in the male-dominated life of this profession, the fact that all my co-workers have a wife who manages their household and children’s activities and familial obligations. They can work the extra time and do self-study at home in the evenings and bond with the boss on work softball teams. As for me, when I walk out the door, I’m managing the house and running to soccer and helping my mom, things that the guys I work with may help their wives do, but they don’t own those jobs they way the wives do.

    My guys at work are terrific people and I love some of them dearly, but in this male-dominated society, they don’t even see the contrast between how much society encourages and allows them to excel and achieve, and how much it discourages women from the same thing. I’m a plain heterosexual married-with-kids kind of person; it has to be even harder for women who don’t pour themselves into that mold.

  109. Hobbies and professions need to be separated to some extent. I’ve almost always felt encouraged and welcomed in male-dominated hobbies, if somewhat apart from the main social current at times.

    Professions and fields of study, though, are a different story. The thing I always, always want to shout is “it’s the bullying and sexual harassment, stupid!” People talk about what young women enjoy doing, but I can tell you one thing young women pretty universally do not enjoy and that is pervasive sexual bullying from their classmates, peers, and sometimes junior instructors…and in many places that is the cost of being the one chick in the lab. It is not the only factor (and, frankly, I know far, far more men who fled from engineering during the course of their college years than women), but it’s an important one that is almost universally ignored.

    The professional setting does get better, but there is always that line to walk when working with dysfunctional monkeys — the ones who are only professional with you if they’re attracted, the ones who can only be professional with you if they’re not attracted — mixed in with the adults.

  110. @Queen of Thoughts – Have you considered patent law? I have a PhD in Materials Engineering and that’s what I do. I have a JD now, but I started out right out of getting my PhD, working as a staff scientist in a law firm. They even paid for my law school. If you like playing with words as well as numbers, it might be a good fit.

    My email is just my first name at the domain that should be linked to my name in this comment. Feel free to contact me offline if you’d like to talk more about the idea.

  111. In elementary school, I was horrible at math. I spent most of 5th grade failing miserably. Multiplication and long division left me in tears. And my father, who has a degree in math, would “try” to help me, but would end up muttering, this is SO easy, why can’t you get it? AND he would get very angry if he saw me counting on my fingers. Not to mention, math is incredibly easy for my two brothers, so I was made to feel like the dumb girl even more. It wasn’t until 10th grade, when I took geometry that I got over my math fears. With geometry, everything clicked. That led me to take calculus and I did well at that too. I actually think my father was shocked that I was finally able to do well. I have to thank my mother for patiently working with me and never telling me that girls can’t do math.

  112. I love this blog^^ this was truly one awesome article that hits the nail about social expectations of women and how warped america as a country is.

    you know the sad thing with me is i didn’t even realize i was a feminist until i took a course called Gender and Society last summer.
    here i learned that my subconcious resentment and anger at being told i wasn’t good at math (and was constantly reinforced throughout elementary/middle/high school), told i wasn’t popular because i was strong and good at sports and was a tomboy (god forbid), told that ‘oh don’t worry, a pretty girl like will find a boyfriend'(because i need one), being treated different/ judged simply for being born female awakened a driving need to make a stand where-ever i found inequality being dealt out.
    i’m grateful for the insightful, intelligent responses from other women and peers who understand exactly what it is i feel.
    keep it up, Shapely Prose

  113. http://xkcd.com/385/

    Man and another man at a blackboard, with a math equation on it. First man remarks, “Wow, you suck at math.”

    Same man, same blackboard, same equation only now it’s a girl. First man remarks, “Wow, girls suck at math.”

  114. Mary C said above: “The women who succeed in male dominated fields are overachievers and perfectionists who feel a deep sense of duty to mentor and serve, and that makes the choice between work and the rest of your life much more acute.”

    This! Absolutely this.

    In the late 90s, I started a PhD program in a very old-boys-club field: organic chemistry. 2 years into the program, I realized it was not for me, at least at the time. I got my Masters, and worked for 8 years in various fields. Now, I’m back in a PhD program, and in organic chemistry.

    My decision to take my Masters was very hard at the time, and partly because I felt like I was caving into the idea that women can’t make it in academia. (At the time, I had gone into the program intending to be a professor.) The one female prof at my institution was quite disappointed when I left.

    And now, I’m still getting questioned about my decision 11 years ago. It was the right for me, and I haven’t regretted it one bit. I have had some really great experiences because of it! But I am sick of the questioning, which makes me feel like *my decision* was a step backward for all women in science. Grr.

  115. A difficult ex of mine (computer geek, open sourcer) confided a revelation to me a couple of years ago: that of course women don’t participate much in the opensource community because they don’t feel like dealing with the bad social behavior.


    One of the things that convinced me not to major in computer science back in 1986 (besides the fact that I had no interest in doing cursor graphics) was going to a college computer science conference where basically none of the (all male) participants appeared to be wearing deodorant. Later on, these types took the same attitude towards participation on Usenet.

    I’ve got poor social skills myself, and am vulnerable to abusive personalities– but somehow women and girls don’t teach each other to dish out and accept the kind of crap that men and boys seem taught to find acceptable in social groups. (Sometimes how I wonder how the larger proportion of social-skills-hampering neurological issues such as Aspergers in the male population feeds into that.)

  116. I’m an astronomy Ph.D. who works as a computer programmer. While nearly everyone who got their Ph.D. around the time I did has left the field due to our oversupply and a job shortage, the ones who are left are all men (women were about 1/3 of the grad students at that time).

    I felt relatively sheltered from sexism in my field until grad school, but that could be because I’m really really geeky and just don’t pick up a lot of subtle stuff unless I’m really looking for it (and my undergrad school worked hard to keep the sciences welcoming to everyone). But boy howdy, I got slapped in the face with it as I got closer to my degree. My department would only search for a “superstar” female prof while hiring average male profs. I interviewed for a postdoctoral position – the professor kept trying to look up my skirt the entire time. Computer programming is a sausage fest of the clueless, but they can’t even come close to the massive disrespect I found in academia.

  117. Also, in terms of swimming in it — I’m not sure how to respond when my 4 and a half year old daughter cries that she doesn’t want to take off her dress because she won’t look beautiful without it on.

    Obviously I don’t know your daughter, and I don’t want to be all Pollyannaish and such here but it may actually be that she wants to look beautiful in the dress for her own enjoyment of it, sort of thing (i.e. “this gives me aesthetic pleasure” rather than “wearing this dress makes me look nice to other people”). In which case of course it’s important to reinforce that a) she will be beautiful anyway and b) being beautiful is not the be-all-and-end-all, but it might also be worth introducing c) “how about we hang it from the hook on the back of the door, so it stays nice and you can look at it?”

  118. I loved science, but I never got good marks in maths, so I didn’t take it past school, and I regret that now. I do believe my natural aptitude for mathematics is moderate, but I like it, what I can do of it I find it very satisfying. My real problem is with the way it’s taught – rote memorisation, repetition, an utter lack of any exploration, interest or creativity. I mean – if they taught english like they taught maths, we’d be drilled in one book after another until we could repeat the important plot points back to the teacher, and then given another book. No thought to encouraging the children to read for pleasure, or enlightenment; never recommending books in a genre a child likes. Being told every day how important it is to memorise these books – because you need to be able to write for most jobs. Not because literature can be a revelation and a delight in its own right.

  119. I’m not in a STEM field, I’m actually in Accounting which is fairly, though not perfectly distributed among men and women professionals. Among college programs it is probably woman heavy.

    However it took me a long time (at the age of 26) to realize that I did indeed like and was marginally good at math and that math is not something that I *CAN’T DO* which is what I thought until I was 25-26, despite the fact that I always did well on placement/achievement tests, by the time I was in high school I had developed such a math phobia that I had to take high school Geometry three times.

    I suspect that the persistent messages of what subjects girls and boys are supposed to be good at did get to me. I also as a child had a high interest (and aptitude) in science, which I mostly lost by high school. But I can’t point to any one root cause. It was probably also affected by the fact that until I was 16 all I had ever wanted to do in life was be an artist/performer and so I saw math as unnecessary.

  120. I graduated third in my physics class (undergrad) and with A’s for my math masters, and honestly, what made me really decide against going the academic route to PhD, postdoc, ‘nother postdoc, instructor, assistant professor, full professor is that by the time you are at the point where you can afford to take off even the minimum amount of time necessary to have a baby, you are likely over 35.

    That is because if you take that minimum amount of time while you’re still on the “track” to full professor, someone else who doesn’t need to take off time to start a family (usually a man) will blow right past you and crowd you out for the choicest spots (or perhaps the only spot!).

    I remember having this conversation with other female math grad students (I went to Boston University, which actually has about a 50/50 male/female grad student ratio — it was at the time the most equitable top-tier department, from what the grad chair told me). One grad student was waiting for a grant to get pregnant — in fact, it was really popular for young-20s married grad ladies to start a family then, because in grad school you can put your degree off a semester or a year and it doesn’t really hurt you like it would once you were on the academic track, post-doc.

    But I wasn’t interested in starting a family young. I wasn’t married, I wasn’t interested in getting married at the time. Also, I had all these *other* interests that I wanted to explore, and as others in similar fields have mentioned above, math and science is all-consuming, due to both how the fields are internally structured and also due to the external (mostly male) community.

    So now I’m in industry, a programmer, actually. I’m still doing research, and I’m writing my first paper (yay!). My company is male-dominated, and the women in the company often play the roles of managers, assistants, and other professional mommies rather than programmer roles, but I see the demographic within the company changing as more women join it. And more women ARE joining it.

    Oh yes, and when I was a kid I *was* told that women were better at “English, the arts, nursing, etc” and that I should leave the math/science to my brother. Now *I’m* the scientist and *he’s* the musician… ;)

  121. Sarah wrote: My grandmother was a computer programmer in a decade when that was a pretty darn rare profession even for men.

    … and of course the irony is that many of the earliest programmers were women. Ada Lovelace, of course, but also during WWII, women math majors were easier to leave behind the lines to work in the labs. Of course it was seen as more of a “clerk” job at the time — after all, women did it.

  122. I just remembered that when I was studying for an astrophysics PhD (which I never got because I realised my attention span was way too short for research), I was told by the head of department that more women did astrophysics than other physics disciplines because it is more passive than, say, particle physics. I was stunned, I was working on active galaxies – some of the biggest explosions in the known universe, incredibly violent objects, which was a large part of why I was attracted to it. Particle physics with its atom smashers was my next top interest. The other women and I had quite a laugh about that, and laughed even harder when he told the school that he wanted to make it more attractive to women. Privately we suggested his resignation would be a good start.

  123. Why do feminists “overreact” to the tiniest traces of misogyny in ads and media, things the more enlightened call harmless fun? Because those tiny traces pollute our minds and our environments. Because we struggle each day through a miasma of subtle, insidious particles of information saying that men need to fuck women into submission, that women are inherently lesser beings, that women’s looks are their only worth, that women’s safety and health and comfort are unimportant — and the particles that stick to you don’t wash off easily. Because this polluted environment breeds girls who think they can’t do math, but also men who kill. And because contradicting only the most obvious, bald-faced, clear-cut messages just doesn’t do enough to stop it.

    *applause* Precisely. Oh, how I wish I had let fly with this when I’ve encountered that old (yawn) “feminists have no sense of humor hur hur” crap.

  124. I second A Sarah. Seriously. I would rather have no sense of humor than date someone who thinks it’s totally hilarious when women who aren’t me, his mom, or his sister get raped and murdered.

  125. Hopefully things are changing. When I was in middle school (in the very early 80s), our school-wide science teacher (who also taught biology at the district high school) would flat out say “girls don’t belong in science”, and he would harass and intimidate the girls in the classroom.

    I’ve always been fairly oblivious that sort of thing, I thought, but it was only years and years later that I realized I did have some hurdles with regard to thinking I could, for example, learn to sail and maintain my own boat, learn to maintain and repair its diesel engine, learn to navigate using celestial navigation and *gasp* math, &c. &c. and so on.

    My poor brother probably always wonders why I get his little daughters so very many science and physics toys as gifts. Perhaps I’m just mollifying the annoyed little girl inside. ;)

  126. First I’d like to say that a friend pointed me to this blog the other day when I asked for dieting tips. She opened with “diets. don’t. work.” and then told me to read this blog. I spent the next few hours doing just that and I felt smarter almost immediately. Thank you, and I look forward to continuing to learn and open my eyes.

    Now for my story. I think my story shows that, despite the fact that we are literally swimming in our misogynistic cultural context, positive messages DO have the power to overwhelm all that negative energy. I was lucky in many ways as a child. My parents are both educated, intelligent people who encourage their children to do anything and everything that interests them. My father taught at a K-12 private school since I was 1 year old, and that meant that I was able to attend it for 13 years of my life. Throughout my time there, I was encouraged in every possible way – I was accelerated several levels in math and reading, given heaping praise at every turn, and even though I excelled in every subject in high school (graduating as valedictorian), the vivid and encouraging teaching I received in the sciences (bio and chem particularly) convinced me that’s what I wanted to do. I went on to a small liberal arts school with a strong science program, kicked ass in my chemistry major (valedictorian again), and was strongly encouraged and helped by everyone I knew (male and female professors both) in getting into an extremely elite PhD program in chemical biology. (It’s worth mentioning that my year in the chemistry program was at least half women, and they’ve all gone on to either great jobs or PhD programs.) I’m now in my second month of that program, and the lab I’m working in is headed by a male professor, but it consists of more than half women, and from what I’ve seen the women are more driven and brilliant than the men, in most cases.

    Sometimes I sit back and look at the story of my life and simply boggle. I know that my own intelligence has played a role in getting me to this point, but I also know that it would not have happened without the incredibly large and constant network of support I have had for my entire life. I still go back to my high school and tell my teachers about my life, and they are thrilled for me. I feel like somehow I’ve occupied this idyllic bubble where my gender has never stood in the way of achieving exactly what I wanted to and was capable of. I have had incredibly vibrant female role models at every step of my life.

    And then I wonder why the hell it can’t be like this for everyone. I want that more than anything.

  127. Anwen-with-an-N — that’s my general take — she really enjoys decorating things. Some people enjoy decorating — themselves, their surroundings. I think when I was little I was the same way, and at some point, I think I “learned” it was frivolous to decorate — and that I wasn’t particularly good at it, which is really sad.
    So I bite my tongue quite a bit, and let my daughter decorate lots of things (not walls, but just about anything else, we don’t have much precious furniture). I could also channel this better for her — and plan to do so in the future.

  128. In high school, I was point blank told by my geometry teacher that I would never be good at math and to focus on English instead. Keep in mind at this time, I was tutoring seniors in Calculus.

    (Geometry and Calculus were taught by two separate teachers.)

    I still have a hard time understanding geometry, while the more abstract maths are a cinch to pick up. But I do sometimes wonder if I would have such a hard time with geometry now, if my teacher hadn’t said what she did back then?

    I ended up pursuing a degree in English in college, not because I thought math and sciences were out of my league, but because I wanted a challenge. I assumed college was a time for learning new things and since my grasp of English grammar and literature were pretty bad, I figured a degree in the subject would help me out.

  129. @Elizabeth, way up at the top of the thread there: I haven’t finished that essay you linked yet, but I just got the the section called “Geometry: Instrument of the Devil” which made me shout “Yes!” and pump my fist in the air — I love it so much, thank you, thank you, thank you.

  130. Regarding the gym shooter: I knew Sodini. He volunteered in the computer center at the library I work at. The first day he worked here, he sat down at one of the computers at the desk, looked at the desktop wallpaper (I often put LOL cat pics up there) said “I can’t look at this all day,” and immediately changed the wallpaper without even asking if he could.

    Now, changing the background on a comp is a very minor thing, but it was the fact that he never asked if it was ok to do so, and felt perfectly fine changing the settings on a computer that wasn’t his own.

    Even though there was a veneer of politeness, I had the impression that he didn’t respect those of us who worked there. I immediately disliked him. He kept changing the background when he worked (he came in once a week on Sundays) until a co-worker in my department emailed him and told him he was not to change any settings on the comp, no matter how minor.

    Looking back, I’m surprised he didn’t go after us, since our library, like all others, is staffed mostly of strong, intelligent women. I guess we were saved because we weren’t “hotties” or whatever. But either way, when I saw the sense of entitlement in his blog, I wasn’t surprised one iota. Women aren’t stupid; we can sense when someone doesn’t respect us or see us as people. And yeah, he brought the creepiness when he was here too. Tho it wasn’t as strong then, and also I think we’re a bit desensitized because libraries are creep magnets (usually it’s the patrons doing the creeping, though). Needless to say, we are still freaked out about this.

  131. Oh my god…cowsharky….I don’t know what to say.

    Like Sweet Machine, I’m glad to hear that you and your coworkers were not also target by this man. My thoughts are with you all though, as I imagine it is quite a lot to handle just being that close to the situation.

  132. Wow, cowsharky, I’m not surprised you’re rattled. Even though we all know in a sort of vague academic sense that we’re surrounded by sexism every day, it must be really upsetting to know just HOW close you were to such misogynistic violence. I’m glad you’re physically unharmed.

  133. Since I went to a small town school (only 8 people in my class), mostly female, and the two boys were a bit below average in the brains department, I always thought girls were smarter than boys. I could easily dismiss any influences from the outside world because I *knew* from my own experience that girls were smarter. It seems odd now to realize how different that experience was from most.

    I am a geek with a Computer Science degree working as a systems administrator. I also love doing art, reading, and writing. There were only a couple of women in my University computer classes.

    After University I wondered why I never seemed to get involved in the cool “extra” work that some of the other students did. I berated myself for not trying to approach a prof to mentor me. The truth is that profs usually don’t reach out to mentor female students, and male students are usually more assertive in demanding attention.

    This carries on to my current job, where I prefer to be assigned work rather than having to compete socially for it. I also expect more “people skills” from my managers. Sadly, most managers tend to be promoted from within, so you get an IT manager who can manage projects but not people.

    FWIW, I have never had a problem with porn from the guys at work. The one time I worked in an all-female office as a clerk, they had a Playgirl calendar up in the ladies’ washroom. It was a summer job so I didn’t object, but it was disturbing to me.

  134. I think part of what holds women back from advanced math/science education and consequent academic/research careers is actually rooted way back in childhood and a sense of self that women tend to lose as they grow up. Bear with me here. I am thinking back to the wonder I used to feel at natural phenomena and their underlying scientific/mathematical principles, and the encouragement I got from teachers for pursuing my “eccentric” interests in math and astronomy. Fast forward to about age 9, when as a female you start getting heavy social pressure from peers to be a “girl” rather than a girl. The boys still get cool telescopes and chemistry sets for their birthdays, but you get mani/pedi parties from well-meaning relatives. Your brain becomes clouded with minutiae. It is not cool to be good at or express too much enthusiasm for math/science. It’s socially acceptable to be a good student, but only in the sense that you are a grind — a “good girl” who follows directions and studies hard for standardized tests. OK, so this nets you high academic honors upon your graduation from high school, but it does not necessarily involve any sense of wonder or any true connection to your academic interests. Now, assume you have persevered through all that. You are at a top university, majoring in math, and doing OK but not getting much encouragement from male peers and professors. Do you still have enough passion for your field to make you want to persevere, to ignore the subtle discrimination and to trumpet your achievements as the male students are not shy about doing? Do you still have the self-assurance and inward focus to be able to make the creative/inferential leaps that are required of you at the higher levels of astrophysics, or are you only equipped to pass tests and look for approval from others, politely asking permission before you speak, unsure if what you have to say might sound stupid? In other words, have you retained the unabashed exuberance and intellectual curiosity of your pre-gendered youth, or has this by now been completely socialized out of you? That is my question. Because after this long process has done its number on us, we end up powerless in the face of discrimination, and nothing that anyone can do at the level of higher education will change that.

  135. Thanks for this.
    I loved science in school, and wanted to be an astronomer. But math was always hard, and I got zero encouragement from parents or teachers to apply myself. It really messed up my GPA and my plans. I wound up becoming a journalist, and I love my career, but I have always been mad at myself for believing I suck at math, and that I believed I sucked at math because I’m a woman.
    So, I’ve been working on it by signing up for math classes at my city’s community college. I’m almost done with pre-algebra, and am very close to getting my first A in math ever.
    I start Algebra I at the end of the month, and if that goes well, on to Algebra II. My goal is to take math through Calculus, and not just understand it, but do well at it. If I am not too busy after that, I am taking astronomy and physics. Just because I can.

  136. I just want to say that I took my laptop to get all the software installed that I need for grad school and 2 of the 3 IT people working were women. I thought that was awesome, and I can’t help but wonder if I am the only person who will walk in the door and notice that.

  137. @Mary –

    I ended up pursuing a degree in English in college, not because I thought math and sciences were out of my league, but because I wanted a challenge. I assumed college was a time for learning new things and since my grasp of English grammar and literature were pretty bad, I figured a degree in the subject would help me out.

    This reminds me of how I got MUCH more enjoyment out of English than Math in high school. Math was my easiest A. English? English I had to WORK at and really engage my brain and wrestle with. I was proud of those Bs!!

  138. Thanks everyone. Yeah, we’re kinda shocked here. I guess we weren’t on his hate radar as much ‘cuz we’re of various ages and body types. Not that I don’t think we’re all beautiful, but an idiot like him would think differently. I do take pleasure in knowing that working here must’ve been hell for him. Think about it–a place filled with strong, intelligent women who care passionately about learning and teaching–that so is hell for a misognynist.

  139. I’ve been reading Roissy for awhile now, mostly for the comic shock-value of it all. Was disappointed, but not surprised, to see his boys rooting for Sodini.

    Some of it is plain misogyny, and some of it is their tendency to self-style themselves as Brave Truth-Tellers against a PC World. Easy to do that behind a computer screen.

    That some dissenters are genuinely brave people driven by the the light of Truth does not ensure that others aren’t just idiotic assholes. This point seems not to have occurred to them; maybe it’s part and parcel of male privilege never to ask yourself, “Am I crazy???”

    But that’s wild, cowsharky!

  140. Carnegie Mellon University, as part of their attempts to recruit and retain more women in their computer science programs, did some research into this. The results, and the results of CMU’s response to the findings, are in Unlocking the Clubhouse. It’s a good read – maybe not THE answer to the lack of women in STEM, but certainly part of it.

  141. I had a male guidance counselor convinced I should be a research scientist, and a male math teacher convinced I should be a computer programmer – this is in the late 1970’s. My parents had sexist attitudes but would have been thrilled if I’d gone for the computer sciences (much less thrilled about going into Physics – “what kind of job can you get with that?”). My mother still grumps sometimes about the fact that I didn’t go further with computers – she knows more about them at this point than I do (she builds them for a hobby and whatnot).

    I don’t honestly know if I would have gone for computers if I’d lived in a non-sexist society, but I do know sexism was crucial to my choice not to. First off, I was sexually abused as a kid, and, while I can handle straight-up bullies pretty easily, I tend to freeze up when it comes to sexual harassment, and I’d have fewer allies in those careers simply because there’d be fewer women around.

    But secondly, while my one computer teacher thought I was terrific, the other one was hopelessly sexist. I knew I was doing better work than the guys in his class (I was the first girl to take advanced computing), and some of the guys knew it too (one of my programs ran in half the time of anyone else’s, for instance), but while I got a good grade, the teacher generally treated me like an idiot and an afterthought.

    He did things like hand out assignments for a project to everyone else, then turn to walk away. I protested, “What’s my assignment?” and he looked blank a moment, then said, “Oh, you can help so-and-so.” Class of six people and the only one he forgets to give a specific assignment is the girl. (In his defense, my sister insists he wasn’t sexist – “For heaven sakes, he coached the girl’s soccer team!” – but that he didn’t like me because I’m “different” and that made him uncomfortable.)

    I don’t believe women ALWAYS have to “do the job twice as well to be considered half as good”, but OTOH I wasn’t enthused about a lifetime of fighting for people to realize I was competent in order to do my job, either. If I were a writer I could much more easily disguise my sex should I decide I couldn’t handle the hassle anymore (less true now than it was then, I think, but James Tiptree, Jr. had just been revealed so it was on my mind).

    The women I’ve talked to who didn’t stick with engineering or computer science long-term have all cited sexism (or just getting tired of being surrounded by guys and missing having female co-workers), and at least one friend who is still an engineer wishes desperately she’d gone into the liberal arts, for various reasons, some of them related to being in a mostly-male environment.

    As a kid I’d always been more comfortable with all-male groups than all-female, but I also started getting triggered more easily when I hit my late teens (partly because the size difference between me and many guys was approaching that between me and the guys who’d abused me when I was little – up until high school most guys were closer to my size). And some guys started making a bigger deal over the fact that I was female – as a kid it seemed like I could pretty easily prove I “belonged” through simple competence, while as a teen there was always the one guy who’d rag on me for not having a right to be there simply because I was female.

    I’m guessing sexism has a lot to do with women not going into some coded-male careers.

    slythwolf, on August 11th, 2009 at 3:03 am Said:
    The kinds of hobbies that are math- and science-related often seem to have a bunch of expensive equipment to buy.

    This. I’d love to immerse myself in Radio-Controlled airplanes, but man they’re pricey (although building SPADs helps).

    And a lot of these sorts of things were at one time most accessible through mentoring, although the Internet may be changing that to some extent, and it can be tougher for a woman to find a mentor who isn’t going to be hitting on her or whatever. I can’t remember where I ran across him, but I remember some ham radio guy explaining why he would help guys get the equipment, but not girls, “because the guys will stick with it.”

    And it’s like, “Gee, with your attitudes, I can’t imagine why that is…”

  142. Should have said, “better work than *some of* the guys in the class” – I dunno if I was best over all, but I do know I was doing good work.

    And I meant to say that guys are acculturated to think they have a right to spend money on themselves, while girls are not. I know guys who thought nothing of spending $600 a year on their hobby, while their wife had no personal spending money and was desperately trying to figure out how to afford shoes for the kids! (They both worked.) Not all guys are that bad, obviously, but the culture is much more tolerant of guys who spend money on their “toys” than of women who do the same.

    And someday I’ll remember I can’t edit here and will read the stupid post before posting…

  143. Kimu, on August 11th, 2009 at 4:09 pm Said:
    , but there is always that line to walk when working with dysfunctional monkeys — the ones who are only professional with you if they’re attracted, the ones who can only be professional with you if they’re not attracted — mixed in with the adults.

    Wow, Kimu, I hope you read this, because that is a brilliant point and sums up the problem of “professional dress” for women – how do you dress so that the guys who only recognize and respect good looking women will listen to you, while silmutaneously dressing so the “beautiful woman, hur hur” guys will tune in? It’s not possible, and it has nothing to do with the woman and everything to do with the idiots around her.

    I don’t know which kind of guy I despise more, the kind who only respects women they declare good looking, or the guys who can’t keep their mind on the job when there’s a good looking woman in the mix. Gah!

  144. I didn’t do as well in math as I might have because I was put in the gifted math class in third grade as well as the gifted language class. I don’t remember math being a problem subject in fist or second grade, but fifth thru tenth grades, math was the bane of my existence. In fifth & sixth grades, I felt an obligation to continue in the gifted math class because I was the only girl left in it at my elementary school. I repeated Course III in 11th grade (when most people take it) and finally understood most of it. My experience, oddly enough, was one of my teachers and counselors not wanting me to give up the gifted program even though I felt overwhelmed. My junior high counselor actually talked me out of repeating Course I (9th grade math). Now I wonder how much better my grades might have been if I had listened to the voice telling me what my needs as an individual were rather than my perception that I had to keep going because some girl had to. In terms of what math I’m good at, it seems to be abstract math vs concrete math. Music is and always has been one of the things I’m best at. Algebra is no sweat if I’m figuring what materials I need to build a set, but put a formula in front of me that’s just a bunch of letters and numbers without some real world context, and forget it. And I hope that made some sort of sense as it’s about 2:30 AM.

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