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.)
Tags: gender bias, math, science, sexism