As maybe a few of you know, I had a rather interesting adolescence training as a competitive Rhythmic Gymnast for 10 years of my life. this included summer training camps in Canada and Russia, along with 20 hours a week of practice in middle school and other such crazy experiences. As it was occasionally traumatizing, most of the time I prefer to shove these memories in the back of my mind. However, sometimes, I do stumble upon them, and think of various things I’ve gained and/or lost from this decade of my life. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned, so that you don’t have to repeat this long and strenous process yourself:

1. If a new leader steps in with a cult-inducing personality and tries above all to tout the nationality of their homeland, you should probably be wary.

2. Cliche, but still not stated enough: you can only really excel at doing something if and when you love what you do. This does not mean that the practice has to come easily; often, challenges are essential to enjoyment. However, make sure that the issues you are fighting are worthy pursuits.

3. The toughest enemy you will ever battle will be the one in your own head. The toughest opponent you will ever struggle with will be that of your own body, even if you are a 5-foot tall gymnast.

4. The relentless pursuit of perfectionism is lethal. The enjoyment of life and culture is not only pleasant, but has great artistic and social worth.

5. On the flip side, having faced enough drama and politics within a childhood to last a lifetime, when anyone tries to give me trouble now, I just make like Beyonce and think this.

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To date I have never attend a Gender Studies class, read any Betty Friedan, burned any of my bras (those things are damn expensive) or gone more than a week without shaving. Sometimes I wear lipstick; sometimes I wear heels. Sometimes I even cook breakfast for men I care about; but only if they do the dishes in exchange. I have an apron that’s pink and somewhat frilly, and sometimes I wear this too, because it has nice pockets and is a souvenir from a great vacation in Tokyo. I support and admire women of strength and of power, and I am pro-female. This does not entail that I necessarily hate men; the world does not exist in binary forms and if there is any animosity, it is merely annoyance in a stereotypical form of frustration between the sexes. I do not know what this word feminist means, because I have never looked it up in the dictionary.

But evidently, it must mean something to me. I have been told before that I am a feminist and sometimes I call myself one for the sake of simplifying arguments. It seems that I have even labeled some of my writing so.

And evidently, it must mean something to others if only that sometimes men roll their eyes at me and women become inexplicably either suddenly warm or colds towards me. Anything that warrants such a viceral reaction deserves to be explained, if even for the mere reason that I avoid strife and find it off-putting to say the least that one should ever react to me in a negative way for mere use of a label. The only other adjective of similiar scope that has been undeniably placed upon me seems to be Asian, and if one were to react in the same way to that label, it would be called Racism, and unacceptably so.

And so now that I am 20, a nice even number, exactly a prime number’s worth of decades, it seems to be a good time to evaluate what that f-word means before I go on, as I am neither so young as to bear it irresponsibly, nor too old to re-evaluate.

Here is what the New Oxford American Dictionary says:

a person who supports feminism.
of, relating to, or supporting feminism: feminist literature.

which is an utterly useless definition.
And so we must look one step up, to feminism itself, which means:

the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.

Which sounds to me a sane and rational cause to support, even self-evident.
I do not know really why one should have such a negative reaction to this well-meaning and logical definition, but I do not claim to have a thorough understanding of the behavior of people on the whole. All I wish to emphasize is that this word seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with the cooking of food, cleaning of kitchens, dressing and portrayal of bodies, hatred of men, or most puzzling of all, lesbianism. And with that definition in mind, I can confidently say that yes, I am a feminist, in the true sense of the word, which is, after all, how words ought to be used, and perhaps you should, too.

P.S.: I am notoriously bad at detecting sarcasm so if you are in the same boat as I there is some of that in the above.

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There are many concepts in the human mind that may indeed be figments of one’s imagination: unicorns, flying pigs, and a truly free lunch, for example. Gender bias in math and science, however, is unfortunately not one of these. (That would be called gaslighting.)

It is extremely upsetting to hear that there are men, and even more dissapointing, women, out there who cannot grasp the idea that it might in fact be true, and morever, statistically relevant. This is particularly disturbing considering that students at Columbia are often considered some of the brightest and most liberal in America.

Gender bias in math and science is not a myth. (Check out this post of mine a while back, and for more on this topic, Cathy’s writing on this recent infographic in the nytimes on the depressing results of female performance in science exams in the US).

I will not go in depth today about my feelings about natural aptitude in men versus women in Math and Science, because a) I’m in class and b) really tired of ranting this week, which has been endlessly trying on my patience, but I will leave you this: my firm belief is that Self-Doubt is the Number One cause of underachievement with respect to women in technical fields. I say this because I do not believe that natural talent has much to do with scientific success– only hard work, interest, and a belief in one’s ability to learn.

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard women in Computer Science doubt their abilities to code or take courses, myself entirely included in this camp, yet there are very few times I’ve heard a similiar complaint from men: on all levels of learning. I myself did not become comfortable debating and discussing Computer Science (the most fun and best learning method in any field!) until nearly 2 years after my study began; and that was after I found great female (and male) mentors, and formed a strong friend group and area of interest (Data Science and Natural Language) within the community.

The problem with self-doubt starts very young– I often find that girls seem to believe they are not “suited” towards math or “no good” at it. Almost always this is untrue. If you do not believe me I will offer myself as an example: I may be no mathematician but, considering that I am currently attending and enjoying Columbia’s Engineering school and have accepted a full time paying internship for Data Science this summer, I can pretty safely say that my analytic thinking skills are at least adequate. Yet, up until senior year of high school I always believed myself to dislike math and consider it a non-option; almost all the “math geniuses” I knew were male and had personalities and interests far removed from my own.

These sentiments in my mind were even occasionally echoed by others. When I was a junior in high school my pre-calculus teacher actually refused to recommend me for the more advanced BC AP Calculus class. She told me that I was not “naturally suited” towards mathematics, and had I not had such supportive and encouraging parents (being at that age somewhat obedient towards authoratitive voices who told me I was no good at things) I may have never asked for a waiver. This was, of course, entire BS on her part: not only did I enjoy taking Calculus (I went on to take Calculus III and IV at Columbia), I ended up receiving an “A” in the class. Note that there was no concrete evidence whatsoever in her choice to deny my a recommendation; I had in fact been a stellar student in her class and received an “A+”.

I’m not saying that this specific instance was necessarily driven by gender bias; only that if you are a young girl, especially one who is shy and has not yet developed the thick armor necessarily to fend herself from the dissent and criticism prevalent in the perils of daily life; these various doubts on all sides (professors, colleagues, internal) can cumulate and deter a further pursuit of mathematics (or science). Which is a real damn shame.

I only hope that gender bias it will one day go in the way of the unicorn; until then, I will continue to try my best to lead as a good role model and encourage those around me to do the same, or at least die trying. (Hopefully, die of natural causes after a healthy and happy life trying.)


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