Math is Hard v. I Wanna Be an Engineer!

We've all been hearing that the U.S. future depends on developing more technological talent, so we can keep up with China, et al. And since half the country's potential talent pool is female, that means making sure girls don't end up as innumerate as I am. Both my parents were math majors. My mother took on math with a fury when she was told, in first grade, that girls weren't good at it: She loved it with a passion and was determined to beat every boy at it, which she did, until she met my dad, whom she therefore married. And so she laments the fact that her two daughters absolutely, mulishly refused to study math beyond junior high. God knows they tried to make us, but we balked. We were idiots.  

Were we held back, unlike our mother, by "stereotype threat"? You know this idea, well-established by researchers since Claude Steele introduced the concept in the 1990s. When students (or anyone, really) from a particular group are reminded about a cultural trope about their group's aptitude for learning, they perform to expectations. Mention to a classroom of whites and Asians that the Asian kids do better at this particular math test than the whites, and poof, the white kids' scores drop. But mention to a comparable classroom that both groups do equally well, and poof, scores are equal. The same is true for girls and boys, blacks and whites; activate the stereotype, and the group will perform to it. Disactivate the stereotype, and you free people up to learn and grow. 

Over at Women's E-News, Caryl Rivers and Rosalind Barnett today write about what it will take to keep girls' interest alive in math, science, and technologies--and encourage them beyond whatever that junior-high barrier is that my sister and I refused to push past. They report that the Girl Scouts are working on encouraging girls through that, and write:

There is a short period of time in elementary school during which girls are relatively open to the idea that they can enjoy and do well at math. They can learn that math is for them.

If they don't, they will never find their way to college-level studies in math and science.

It is a step forward that many girls in middle school today are getting the message that "of course girls can do math and science." But these messages are often way too late. We need to do all we can to help math-and-science girls believe in themselves.

We also need to help them believe that STEM careers are not for lonely male "nerds." Engineering and science are typically collaborative efforts, with teams working closely on complex problems. The image of the socially awkward loner, working alone with test tubes in a dingy lab, is a far cry from reality.

Also, we know that women often look for jobs that have a social impact; where they can do good while they do well financially.  STEM offers plenty of that.

My mother is a fighter by nature; tell her she can't do something, and by god, that's exactly what she will do. I grew up hearing stories about how her mother got complaints, every day, about how she terrorized all the boys on her block, fighting them until they outgrew her. I'm kinda hardheaded—hey, I was a public homo back in the 1990s, debating people on the radio about whether or not I was going to hell—but I don't come anywhere close to my fierce and scrappy little mom. I was a fool to shut my mind down to math and science. So what do we need to keep from reproducing my mistake again and again: TV shows where girl engineers save the world? Could Disney come out with a super-engineer-princess? Please, culture rulers, help us out here. Get some more girls singing this song:

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