A few days ago, I got in touch with the parent of a friend of mine from high school who is a college counselor with Kelleher Cohen Associates in the Boston area. Her job is to help high school students find colleges that fit their personality and academic needs, apply for financial aid, and the complete the application process for the schools.
During the course of conversation, she asked about what I was doing for work. When I started describing marketing analytics to her, she got even more inquisitive. Turns out she has a female student with whom she is working that is very interested in Math. It’s not the student’s best subject, but the one that she looks forward to every day. As this student nears college age, she has expressed that she will likely not pursue math further. When I asked why she would abandon a subject that she enjoys, she said that, according to the student, “Pretty girls don’t do math.”
I was flabbergasted and appalled and disgusted… and then I thought more about it. Why wouldn’t she think this? There is a long-standing stigma of women being involved in Math (or any STEM subject, really) despite the rise of women in technical industries and a much younger movement to encourage their participation in them. Organizations such as WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) were a part of the college campus when I was in undergrad but they were constantly looking for more young women to help. The reason, I think, is because of this stigma.
No matter how many studies show that girls are just as competent as boys, there are still societal pressures and misconceptions at play that dissuade females from entering mathematically-oriented fields. What it seems to come down to is how a girl wants to be perceived in society, rather than a lack of desire or ability to do math. Being a “smart girl” or “geek girl” is associated with being homely or, possibly more damaging, being labeled a poser.
This link is often reinforced by the media, especially in movies and TV. Many of the women portrayed as technical are also seen as alternative in some other manner, such as wearing goth or punk-inspired clothing (think: Abby on NCIS, Claudia on Warehouse 13, or Garcia on Criminal Minds). This seems to almost reinforce the idea that women in technical fields are specifically anticonformist and/or cannot be amongst the conventionally “pretty” girls of society. Not everyone, regardless of how technical they may be, is comfortable being quite that far out there as compared to their peers.
There is something to this thought of comfort level. Thus far, I’ve discussed the topic of STEM subject avoidance from the perspective of a girl (or woman) seeking acceptance from society. Perhaps the key to this is not getting girls more interested in STEM fields, but rather allowing them to feel confident about themselves regardless of career decision, body image, or geek status. Perhaps if they are comfortable with who they are, their interests and goals regardless of societal precepts, they will be more likely to pursue a path that makes them happy.
About a month ago, while at a friend’s wedding, I got to talking with a woman at the table with me. She asked my profession and I casually said Data Science, worried that it would sort of end the conversation in two brief words. To my surprise, she lit up and started asking a stream of questions about how I got into such a field.
This is a woman who, to all outward appearances, is quite pretty and well-adjusted. She is in her mid-thirties, has a child, and is now looking to further her career in one of two paths: either data science or technical project management. She stated that she was excited to find a woman who had actually done it – forged a career in a STEM field. We talked at length about how she might transition from what she is doing and improve her skills in math and statistics.
It’s thrilling to find that there are other women out there looking to get into more technical fields. I hope that they all pursue their dreams and interests.
It’s taken a long time for me to finish this post mainly because I got rather irate every time I sat down to write. Therefore, the conversation mentioned at the start was some time ago. I wish that this had been posted in time for it to be shared with my friend’s student and hope that she may still find it helpful.