Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Role models

So everyone's had something to say about the Summers' incident. I've been thinking about how to respond to it, and in thinking about what he said, I naturally thought back on my own experience, growing up as a girl who went into a field she wasn't "supposed" to go into. What made the difference for me? I certainly encountered the same societal pressures, the luddites that said girls are no good in math/science/computer stuff. Why was I not affected in the same way that so many other girls are?

Geeky Mom apparently read my mind---here's a quote from her blog entry today:

"I only had one teacher encourage me to do Math and Science (thank you, Mr. Chandler) and everyone else pushed me to do English. Honestly, who knows where I'd be if someone had really supported my efforts in math and science."

And that, my friends, hits the nail squarely on the head.

I sincerely doubt that I would be in the position I am today if it were not for the multiple role models---teachers, mostly---who actively encouraged my interest in math and science. Talent and passion are of course factors as well, but the main determinant was these teachers who were willing to push me, who took the time to tell me that I was talented, who bent over backwards to keep my interest in the subject, to make science and math interesting and cool and special. Particularly and most especially during the "danger years" of junior high and high school.

I was lucky in that I had very few teachers try to discourage me from math or science, but the ones that did stood out as vividly as the ones who encouraged me. Ironically, one of these was a female math teacher. And truthfully, it probably took at least two positive teachers to balance out each negative teacher I had. In other words, the discouragement had a more profound impact that the encouragement. Maybe this has something to do with our propensity (is this a gendered thing) to more readily believe the negative about ourselves than the positive? I'm not sure.

The point is, the negative influences are there, whether these are overt or covert, whether they are coming from parents or teachers or peers. The only way to overcome these is to actively encourage girls, and on a consistent basis, starting early and going through junior high and high school, to study math and science. I recently heard or read somewhere that not actively encouraging a girl in science or math is the same as actively discouraging her, and I tend to agree. Until the situation gets better (will it ever? sometimes I despair that it will not), we (society we) need to be more proactive, to err on the side of overstatement, to do everything we can to encourage the girls in our lives to continue studying math and science. (And if we can let them know how cool it is at the same time, so much the better!)

I want to finish by saying a quick word about the role my parents played here. My parents are in careers that are very dissimilar to mine. They are not in math or science. Yet, I would consider them every bit as influential as the teachers who pushed me and encouraged me in math and science. You see, they might not have understood exactly what I was interested in, or why, but when they saw that I was interested in something, they actively encouraged me to pursue it. They also listened to my teachers, carefully, and took their cues from them, and also encouraged me to read about science, to do math challenges, to experiment. They supported me throughout, even if they couldn't help me directly. In short, they allowed me room to grow and to create and to find my "space", so to speak. And for that I will be forever grateful. (thanks, Mom and Dad!!! Even though I know you're not reading this!)


Anonymous said...

I can totally understand why Summers' comments provoked outrage. On the other hand, there was a study published yesterday that illustrates the difference between male and female brains:

In a way, it shows that men are biologically predisposed to be better at math than women. That being said, that doesn't mean girls can't be good at math.

~geeky, from

Laura said...

What's odd is my science teachers were women and one of them sort of encouraged me, but not strongly and the other discouraged me--chemistry, didn't do too well. I wanted to try physics as well, but I'd heard that the teacher hated girls. When I got to college, I took core biology, but didn't really like it and didn't understand the text book. When I came to drop the class, the professor asked me what I was majoring in. I said English. He said he didn't understand what I was doing in the class. Well, because I was good at it in high school and I was exploring my options. Isn't that what college is about? Mr. Chandler, by the way, wanted me to be a genetic engineer. Imagine how cool that would be given where we are now with genetics.

Jane said...

GM, interesting about the women science teachers being less than enthusiastic about your interest in science. Now that I think about it, all of my high school math teachers were female and were uniformly encouraging, not only of me but of others. All of my science teachers, except for my Chem teacher, were female. The only science that I absolutely hate? Chemistry. (The guy was a moron though, and I ended up teaching myself Chemistry basically, so I can't say it's because he discouraged me. On the other hand, he didn't really encourage anybody....he just sort of did his job and that's it.)

Simply Geeky, I did not see that study, but I will check it out. I guess what makes me uncomfortable is that we like to trot gender out when there's a discrepancy that favors males, but not when there's a discrepancy that favors females. (Someone else blogged about this recently, but I'm too lazy to find the post again.)