Thursday, January 20, 2011

The academic socialization of girls.

Not too long ago, I was a young girl. I was a smart young girl. I was a smart young girl with an aptitude for math and science.

I knew this wasn't acceptable.

Here's the thing--I don't take hints. The message has to be like a hammer on a recalcitrant nail for me to pick it up. But I still got the message, loud and clear, that it wasn't really ok for me to be good at math and science. I was in the advanced groups for both of these classes, I attended an accelerated school, and the message I got was still "being good at math and science isn't for you. It's for someone, you know, male."

As a fourth, fifth, sixth grader I started to wonder why there were only 2 other girls in my fast-paced math class. Of course a boy usually had an answer, it was a 5:1 m:f ratio-probability just says so. But I don't know that there was ever any encouragement to get us to speak up. I consistently scored extremely well in standardized testing, yet boys who I knew didn't do better than I did were selected for a couple of competitive test situations. In 6th grade when I stopped mathematically functioning between school situation induced (gifted kids are real shits, I'm telling you) depression & an 8 AM math class, it was shrugged off as "not very good at math" as opposed to, oh, maybe I was depressed or not awake or both or something? The "girls aren't good at math" wasn't so much spoken as implied.

Science wasn't quite as insidious. Early grades, yeah, I was good at science. I was allowed to be good at science-we had a teacher who was truly gifted at bringing the subject alive for all sorts of learners. Then in 6th grade, we got a pair of new teachers. The one was female & gave the impression that she was there to organize stuff & proctor tests, whereas her coteacher was male and blatantly sexist. Again, my class had a very high boy to girl ratio. That's no reason, however, to only call on boys and to have them get to do all the work in lab. This teacher actually made sure that there were no all-female lab groups for dissections because "girls think dissection is icky". Yeah, no Mr T, 11 year old me positively lived for looking at critter guts. Being a secretary? Not so much.

We had that teacher for 2 years & by the time they split our class into more advanced/less advanced groups, I was completely shocked that I landed in the warp speed group. I was bad at science, Mr T had made it abundantly clear.

Turns out, I was pretty damn good at science. Good enough to skip freshman science & beat the future valedictorian of the grade above mine in Honors sophomore science. Turns out, I was pretty damn good at math too (again, skipping freshman math entirely). But it was a bit late.

No one really said anything outright, but there was this attitude everywhere about me taking those classes as a freshman. No one would have dreamed of asking "are you sure you belong in this class?" but they thought it awfully loudly. There was a lot of scrutiny that I didn't see the few freshman boys who also skipped being subjected to. There was always that disbelief oozing off people when they saw my books or asked what I was taking. It was really uncomfortable, to the point where I stopped answering the question or doing my homework in front of people at school.

That, it turns out, doesn't work. My sophomore year (Advanced Algebra/Trigonometry) teacher was a skeezebucket, & he blatantly went out of his way to make girls uncomfortable. Do not touch me, ew. So I dropped from Honors and the general consensus was "girls are bad at math". Not "Mr H is a skeeze and why the blazing fuck is he leaning on people when they take tests?" but "well, she's a girl". Really?

And this is all considered ok and normal, even now. I work with a bunch of junior high kids who have figured out that being good at math & science is dorky for a boy, but inexcuseable for a girl. And that isn't right. I'll see a flicker of enthusiasm for something, and then they'll remember it's science and feign boredom. It's so sad. Not only is it sad, it's angry making. There shouldn't be social consequences for being damn good at something, but there are. And I blame the patriarchy for spreading the "girls suck at math and science" meme.

And for all you "women aren't interested in science careers" evangelists, I almost went to a math & science high school. I wanted to major in biomechanics. Hell, I'm in my late 20s and I still want to major in biomechanics. Too bad I was pressured to go into something else. Why? "The math & science requirements for biomechanics are pretty difficult". Even on college entrance, being good at these things was unfeminine, unacceptable.

Girls of the math & science aptitude, who see the problems as puzzles, not chores, girls who want to know how shit works, rock on. Chase your dreams. Don't let anyone, anyone, tell you that you can't be good at it, that it's too hard, that it's for boys. It's for you. You're as wired for inquiry and problem solving as anyone. Maybe when you're my age, the days in which I grew up will be the draconian stone age as far as academic equality goes.

Maybe your work will help make that happen.


katie monstrrr said...

Here's my own personal on this: I went to school in California for 3rd - 7th grade and was in GATE (Gifted And Talented Education). By 7th grade, I was in pre-algebra (highest level allowed for 7th graders), and my science classes had involved dissection (5th grade), robotics! with legos! (6th), and computer sciences (7th). When I moved to Asshole, Washington for 8th grade, the counselor who was in charge of assigning my classes DID NOT BELIEVE the transcript that was RIGHT IN FRONT OF HIS FUCKING FACE and put me regular classes and 2 FUCKING YEARS behind in math. I still hate that man SO MUCH. So yeah, I agree with this post SO HARD. CAPS ATTACK!!!!1!

Allie Clark said...

When I was in fourth grade I was in the Math Olympics. I took 3rd - narrowly; if I had scored a point or two higher I would have gotten first. Years later I gave up my dream of becoming a veterinarian because I couldn't figure out Math 112. I thought I was dumb, but maybe it had to do with the teacher. The average grade in the class was a D-, and math majors failed tests. The multiple-choice tests had questions without any correct answers, and there was no "none of the above" option. I should have come to the conclusion that the teaching was flawed, but I just thought I couldn't be good at math. Damn my uterus and its math-boggling powers.