The idea

The story of a stupid girl in STEM

It was the fall of 1996

I had just turned 12; it was about five or six weeks into my 7th grade year.

I remember distinctly that it was shortly after my birthday because one of my friends had given me a new black tee shirt with the F R I E N D S tv show logo on it at my party a week or so before. I remember thinking that it looked really cool.

I was sitting in my science class while my teacher was explaining matter. We had just completed a lesson on mass in the days prior. He posited a question to the class:

“What has matter, but has no mass?”

The class sat in silence.

Perhaps some students knew the answer but none wanted to take the chance to raise their hand. While I did not definitively know the answer, in my naivete, I figured it was best to make a guess, maybe to start the conversation, if nothing else — to move the class along.

“An idea,” I said, proud of myself that I had the gall to break the silence, while still thinking over my justification in my head: it’s definitely something that is real, but it can’t be quantified in standard units of measure.

An idea?” my teacher shot back.

My teacher was an ancient, at least to my 12-year-old self, hulking, bowling pin of a man. His giant bald head was circled by a crown of white hair. His face framed by huge, out-dated glasses peering atop his bulbous nose over his white mustache. Compared to the nice ladies I had as teachers for the many years prior, he was terrifying.

He sneered at me as he continued, “only a girl would say something as stupid as,” in his most obnoxious little girl impression, “‘an idea.’”

My Irish temper fired up as I attempted to confidently explain my rationale. Yet still he continued, spending the remainder of the class period, without exaggeration, railing against the inherent stupidity of girls and how he wishes he needn’t have to teach them since girls would simply never understand science or math and would be a constant distraction with their dumb answers, such as “an idea.”

I knew what I was confronting was without a doubt sexism. However neither my temper nor this knowledge shielded me from the tears that formed in the corners of my eyes as I tried to make myself physically as small as I was feeling in that moment. I longed for the bell to ring, to bring an end to this insane torture, the likes of which my 12-year-old self had never encountered before and was ill equipped to handle.

Finally, the flat, out-of-tune, electronic, rattling tone sound freed me. I quickly gathered my things and tried to make it out of the room without too many more people noticing my wet cheeks and red eyes. I was almost out of the room when he said:

“Oh and one more thing! What does your shirt say?”

I looked down, reading my shirt, quietly answering, “Friends.”

“Friends,” he scoffed. “Another girl idea.”

While it seemed like an eternity, I somehow made it through the school day. After the 8th period bell, I made my way to the second floor of our grammar school where all the middle school students’ lockers and classrooms were housed from the high school where my last period band class was held. I arrived to a mostly empty hallway, but could hear a few teachers talking in a classroom down the hall.

My stomach sank as I walked towards the exit, locating my science teacher’s voice in the chorus from the classroom I was about to pass. I hoped he wouldn’t notice me as I walked past the door, but to my dismay, I heard him say, “hold on a second,” to the other teachers in the room.

He emerged a few paces behind me, repeating a chant: “Ideas, feelings, friends, emotions, thoughts.”

He followed me all the way down the hall, standing at the top of the stairs, shouting at me as I walked down and finally out of the building.

My grandparents picked me up from school that day. I told them what happened. I told my parents what happened. Everyone was shocked and upset, but they knew he was a tenured teacher who had worked at that school for decades. The likelihood that there could be anything done, they feared, was next to nothing. If they did complain, they expected all that would happen would be that this teacher would continue to harass me for the next two years and my little brother for the two years following.

I had to continue being a student in his class for two more years. Prior to his class, I had loved science, and math for that matter. I had a microscope, collected rocks, kept a notebook where I would do algebra equations for fun, and my friend and I were teaching ourselves HTML.

But what I learned from this science teacher is that it didn’t matter what I was interested in nor what I was good at. What mattered was that he didn’t think I could be good at science and therefore I should be punished until I stopped trying. And what I learned from my parents was that even though they knew he was wrong, they couldn’t stop him and I should just accept it.

It was the late summer of 2013

I was at a going away party for a coworker.

For context, I did give up on science and largely put away my early programming ambitions. I am now in tech, but only as a UX designer and product manager — my Irish temper hasn’t helped me to break any glass ceilings, yet, anyway.

I found myself talking to a guest at this party, a new colleague of another former employee. The conversation turned to speaking gigs at tech conferences. He wanted to complain about not getting a spot because “some girl” got it instead, taking the opportunity to wax poetic about how unfair it is that spots like these are reserved for women and the ones who get it aren’t even qualified. “It should be a meritocracy!” he demanded.

I try to keep that temper of mine in check, so I attempted to calmly posit that we would all like it to be based on merit, but until there is a truly level playing field, what we need now is exposure for young girls to see grown women working in these fields and getting respect for their contributions.

At this point, one of my co-workers tried to help my argument along by suggesting that the reforms really needed to happen earlier — in grammar school education, even.

“Yeah,” I thought, “tell me about it.”

Another co-worker found himself in the conversation as the guest’s tone became heated while he continued to lament his own injuries caused at the hands of these undeserving women. Both of my co-workers became embarrassed and anxious, likely not wanting my temper to become an issue. They quickly tried to change the subject…to sports.

I was disgusted. Fine, maybe it’s not the best party subject matter — I never was very good at that, come to think of it. But the fact that they had to awkwardly divert the subject matter to sports (this pivot was not accidental, as can there be any less gender-equality-like subject matter than professional sports?) instead of suffering the embarrassment of talking about the unfairness of women getting speaking engagements at tech conferences in front of a woman in tech was very telling.

It made me feel exactly like when my parents tried to explain that there was simply nothing they could do to seek punishment for the abuse suffered at the hands of my science teacher. It didn’t matter that they knew this guy was an idiot and was being a jerk; they couldn’t see a way to tell him that without compromising their own standing with this guy who was well connected and respected in the industry.

It’s early winter 2013

I just watched a commercial for GoldieBlox, to whose Kickstarter campaign I contributed.

The video is now surrounded by controversy as it features a parody of the Beastie Boys’ song, “Girls,” but that isn’t what I want to write about.

As I watched this video which was supposed to promote young girls taking an interest in science, technology, engineering and/or math (typically referred to as STEM), I had an intense reaction.

While I absolutely support the effort to get young girls interested in STEM fields and provide support to them as they age to build a career in these industries, I began to feel as though this effort was saying if young girls wanted a career for which they would be respected, they would need to learn how to do work that typically men do. If they can’t handle that work, they would have to continue in the tradition of their mothers and grandmothers, doing women’s work which can never be respected.

This narrative does absolutely nothing to promote gender equality.

Shanley wrote an amazing piece called Misogyny and the Marketing Chick (and countless other pieces which are all worth reading) which really helped me gain focus on this realization.

One of my most thoughtful, well-read, and compassionate co-workers shared this piece with me and another woman in our office one day this past summer. While he did not share it to our company-wide chat, I thought it was so worthwhile, more people should read it. I pasted it into our chat and shortly thereafter a small war broke out.

I don’t remember the details of the debate at this point but my takeaway was that the majority of the men in our office were very uncomfortable with the accusation of this kind of subtle sexism. They don’t think of themselves as sexist, and based on my working experience with them, I would agree that neither I, nor any other woman in my office, needs to fear being taken advantage of by any man on our team or fear being directly harassed.

Of the men in the office who are fathers, most only have daughters and these men are so obviously head over heels devoted to them (and it’s totally adorable, by the way).

I believe that it’s these kinds of men — that is, men who would never take advantage of their female coworkers, and attempt to go out of their way to not be overtly sexist, and who may have daughters of their own — who are championing the push to get young women into STEM. They are among the first generation of men in our culture to experience a new kind of respect for the women in their lives. As such, they want them to have access to the spoils their industries can afford.

While I cannot stress how much I do appreciate these efforts, I believe this represents a deep-seated cultural sexism. These men and women (yes women can be sexist, even against other women) are not trying reform their own subtle, but very real, sexism. Instead, they are trying to pave the way for the women they care about to get a pass from some of that pain, while still preserving large-scale, cultural, gender-based discrimination. Allowing some women to work in STEM fields does not make it okay to continue to disrespect women in other fields of work.

It’s early 2014

I am writing my first public piece about anything of importance, ever.

I’m nervous to put this out there because while I’ve been passionate about gender equality and human rights since I was a very young girl, a certain science teacher in middle school has made me nervous of my own voice. I’m not a great writer and I don’t have proof for any of my claims made here.

I’m just tired of feeling like this, so maybe this is a start.

Oh and the answer to what has matter but no mass?


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