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Last year I went to a Parent-Teacher conference with my daughter’s G.T. (Gifted and Talented) teacher. She sang my daughter’s praises. I basked in her glowing words and swelled with pride. Until she said this:

“She’s really good in math. Probably one of my best math students. Even better than the boys in the class.” – said by a real, live teacher. One that teaches kids.

Cue record screech. I immediately snapped to. I wish I could tell you that I questioned this teacher’s perceptions. I wish I could tell you that I pointed out to her that the very statement she meant as a huge compliment was in itself sexist. But I didn’t. I muttered something along the lines of “She’s always been a natural at math,” and something about “number sense.”

My daughter doesn’t think she’s good at math. She thinks it’s her worst subject.

We’ve tried to remedy this. We’ve tried to give her confidence in all areas and avoid the trap of focusing primarily on her beauty. We try to shine a light on her strengths as much as we can.

But I worry it’s not enough.

I worry it’s not enough because in spite of what we might say or the encouragement we might offer, she’s receiving a message from all around her that is much larger. She’s absorbing the myth.

The myth that boys are better at math and science. The myth that her brain is not built for science or technology or engineering or math (STEM).

It’s an idea that has been around for centuries. That nature (gender) determines a person’s cognitive strengths or weaknesses. That girls are better at reading and writing. Boys are naturally better at math and science.

Wrong.

Researchers are speaking up and coming out against these misguided ideas. Scientists have refuted what they are referring to as junk science or the  psuedeo-science of neuro-sexism.

There is no difference between the brains of girls and boys. There is only individual differences. These are not based on gender. Or race. Or social class.

Signs are pointing to nurture playing a bigger role in girls’ attitudes towards STEM.

Girls often start off liking math and science. In elementary school 66% of girls say they are good in math. By high school that number drops to 18%. Girls are not showing up in STEM in high school and college.

And that is a problem.

According to recent studies, confidence is key when it comes to girls pursuing math and science.

Some factors that affect girls’ confidence in these subjects:

The soft-sexism of low expectations: The attitudes and assumptions of parents. Of teachers. Without even realizing it we are perpetuating the false notion of girls’ weakness in these subjects. It’s in the things we say to girls (as evidenced by my daughter’s well-meaning teacher). It’s pervasive.

In studies, teachers have shown a bias in how they grade students in math based on gender. When asked to indicate their gender on tests, girls are shown to score 20% lower. Teachers have been shown to discourage girls from pursuing higher levels of math and science while encouraging boys. When girls’ grades are lower they conclude that they are not smart. And what people think, especially people that girls look up to, influences the way girls perceive themselves.

STEMStereotypes

 

(My daughter’s school inexplicably took Science out of the GT program and replaced it with Language Arts. Baffling considering that STEM job growth is outpacing the rest of the economy by 300%).

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The Politeness Trap. Girls are taught first and foremost to be good. To be polite. And yes, boys are often taught these lessons. But there is a premium on politeness in girls and being sweet and “lady-like” that teaches them to lower their voice, to not interrupt, to defer when someone else is talking. “Boys will be boys” is often cited as an excuse for behavior that would not be excused so easily for girls. Boys are taught to be bold, assertive, independent. If at times they are loud and interrupt, so be it. The result is girls being silenced or not heard. In the classroom especially.

Perfectionism. Girls in our society are raised to be pleasers. Our society has always looked to the women to be the nurturers. They will be the caretakers. Then there’s the pressure to look a certain way. How you dress matters. Looking cute matters. There is infinitely more pressure on girls in this area than boys. Boys don’t have to sit still to have their hair braided. Boys don’t have to worry about dirtying their cute outfit or losing their hair bow. This is so much a part of our culture that we don’t even realize that these things are being absorbed and registered by girls at a very young age. It is imprinting on their brains. It is affecting their sense of self.

Perfect has no place in math and science. Hand writing can be perfect. Speech and reading can be perfect. But math and science rely on failure. Trial and error. If a child is under pressure in so many other areas it is logical that the idea of “freedom to fail” is contradictory to everything else they learn. The “error” portion of trial and error or developing a hypothesis that may be proven wrong are antithetical to so many things that girls are taught.

(This video powerfully illustrates how we are doing a disservice to our girls every day.)

All of these things add up to girls hearing the message loud and clear. Science and math are not their “natural” habitat. All of these things should make you angry. We have been boxing our daughters into a corner of limited options by our willingness to buy into these prejudices. By our ignorance and obliviousness to all of the things we say and do, all of the things they see and hear, all around them, from the day they are born. This makes me angry. Angry at myself for not realizing it sooner. Angry that I have been unknowingly guilty of buying into an ignorant and outdated mindset. Angry that our society still operates under archaic assumptions.

It’s time to un-learn what we’ve been told. It’s time to pay attention to the messages we’re sending. We need to take the pressure off of girls to be “perfect” and “polite” and “nice.” We have to stop quibbling over whether “bossy” is a bad word and simply allow girls to express themselves loudly and boldly and without apology.

Attempts are being made to bring more girls to STEM. There are initiatives and campaigns directed at motivating girls and encouraging them. But I worry that this will be a whisper under the roar of long held ideas about gender and socialization. Confidence is key. The question is how do we unlock it? 

What obstacles do you think stand in the way of girls pursuing STEM subjects and careers? What are your personal experiences with science and math? What do you think can be done to change this trend?

 

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“Stand up like a man, You better learn to shake hands, You better look me in the eye now, Treat me like your mother.  Come on look me in the eye, You wanna try to tell a lie?  You can’t, you know why?  I’m dressed like your mother.”

-The Dead Weather, Treat Me Like Your Mother

When women are being called names, something’s not right. When women are being harassed, something’s wrong. When women are being threatened with rape and death, something’s got to change. Right? Most of us can agree on that. But what if these things are happening online?

Is the fallout any different because the words showed up on a screen rather than in the mailbox or on a voicemail?

Is the emotional toll and the fear any less because it was done electronically?

Does the vehicle by which a threat was issued even matter?

Is a threat not a threat?

Journalist Amanda Hess wrote an article titled,“Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet”. She goes into great detail about the vile comments she has received over the years. She has an active presence online as a writer and has endured angry rants, threats of rape and threats of death. She has had one individual in particular stalk her online.

Lauren Mayberry of the indie band Chvrches wrote an op-ed that appeared in The Guardian. She wanted to shed light on the misogyny that she has been subjected to on-line. Her band gained notoriety and acclaim after posting some of their songs on a music blog. The internet has been a crucial part of their success. For this reason they find it important to keep communication going between their fans online. Among the gushing fan postings were some hostile comments. Name calling. Threats of rape. Details of lewd acts that men promised to do to her.

These two women are not alone. They unfortunately are in good company.

There are writers, singers, actors, business women, students, executives, and kids who have all experienced the same thing. They are mostly women.

And they are considered targets by some simply because they have the audacity to log on to the internet.

They are told to shrug it off, laugh it off, don’t engage, move on.  In other words, suck it up.   Good girls stay quiet. Don’t make a fuss.  Just smile. Don’t make anyone uncomfortable.

It’s a response that women have heard for ages. Don’t make a fuss about voting, just try to sweetly influence your husband’s vote. Don’t complain about your boss grabbing your ass, just be grateful you have a job. Don’t bother reporting that rape, everyone will just think that you did something to encourage it.

There has been talk of taking the anonymity out of sites like Twitter. Sure. Being anonymous makes it easier for these perpetrators to be more brazen. There have been questions asked concerning who should be tasked with investigating these threats….  the police? The companies that own these websites like Twitter, Facebook and AskFM? Sure.  An avenue for women to report these assaults could give them a way to fight back. While these things could be helpful, they are merely the tourniquet on a bleeding wound. The only way to truly change the dynamic that is festering online is to find the source of the bleeding.

Where is all of this coming from? Is it the continual and persistent objectification of women in all parts of the media? Is it the rampant disregard for other’s feelings? Is it a culture that views women as easy targets, the weaker sex? All of the above?

One issue is lack of empathy.  Recent studies have shown a decline in empathy in our youth.  This disturbing trend is not just some factoid for psychologists and behavioral specialists to be concerned with.  We should all be worried.  As parents, it’s our job to teach these skills to our children.  I believe it is the most important thing we teach them.  Socialize them at a young age.  Set an example of compassion.  Talk to your children about social issues that demonstrate the need for caring and understanding.  If kids don’t learn these lessons, they may be more likely to bully.  They could see a sexual assault of a drunk girl at a party and take a video of it instead of trying to stop the crime.  They may be the person who sees such a video and posts it to social media.  Without any apparent remorse or concern for the victim.  These kids will laugh.  They will ridicule .  They obviously don’t view the girl who has been violated as a living, breathing, feeling, real person.

There’s the detachment that is part of the online world.  Typing a message on Twitter is a little easier to do than screaming it in the person’s face.  Harassing someone on Facebook takes a little less nerve than doing it in person.  Behind the  keyboard, a person is likely to feel more bold.  Some people feel that the lack of physicality gives them a license to be a little meaner, a little more cruel, a little more threatening.  They are able to act out from the safety of their home, they can say things they may never say in person.  The scary fact that for the person on the receiving end of these kinds of messages is that they have no way of knowing when or if the perpetrator is going to take it to the next level.

Does it matter that these threats are online?  No.  The threat is no less real.  The only difference is it is easier to hurl a lewd comment or convey violent intentions over the internet.  It takes less effort than the more traditional means of harassment or stalking.     But the result is the same.  A woman is belittled.  A girl is shamed.  Their safety is threatened.  They feel violated.

The world we live in has changed dramatically over the last 20 years.  The internet is an integral part of all of our lives.  It is a part of our work, our education, our entertainment, our socializing.  We have more access to more information.  We can reach more people with a keystroke.  While all of this access to information and people affords us all kinds of benefits, we can’t ignore the risks.  We can’t enjoy the fruits of the digital world and turn a blind eye to the uglier side of what is taking place.  Social media has become a way for journalists and artists and business people to promote their craft. But it has also become a breeding ground for abuse.

It’s time for us to come to a collective reckoning.  These things need to be addressed, scrutinized, understood.  We need to understand that the person we see on the computer, tablet or phone screen is a real person.  A living, breathing, feeling, real person.  They are not a character in a video game.  They are not a “virtual” anything.  They are women, they are girls.  They are Amanda Hess and Lauren Mayberry.  They are your mother, your sister, your friend, your daughter.  And they deserve to be treated as such.  They are trying to bring this issue to light, they are starting the conversation.  It’s our job to continue it.

This week’s Remember the Time blog hop is “I remember where I was when….”

“Hard wired to concieve, so much we’d have to stow it.  Even needs have needs, tiny giants made of tinier giants, Don’t wear eyelids so I don’t miss the last laugh of this show (the dashboard melted but we still have the radio)”

-Modest Mouse, Dashboard

It was 1992, I was a sophomore in college.  I spent a lot of time in the library.  I would go there to do research, to study.  I loved all the quiet places you could hide.  Desks tucked in between rows of books.  Endless shelves filled with endless knowledge.  Even though I found myself supremely frustrated at times – all of the tables and desks would be occupied, the one book you needed would be checked out- it was still my refuge.  The computer lab was quite different.  That was a place that I despised.  I hated the harsh fluorescent lights, the rows of humming computer monitors, the room full of people who were obviously way smarter than me.

Luckily I didn’t have to venture in to that cold, foreign place often.  I had a word-processor that I was able to get by with.  Most of my needs were met by this little gem.  Basically it was a glorified electronic typewriter, but as an English major, I didn’t need much more.

She was a beauty...
She was a beauty

Every once in a while I would have to suck up my pride and my swallow my fears.  I would run out of ink and not have enough money to buy more.  Or some sadistic professor would come up with an assignment that needed more than a word processor could handle.  On these occasions I would try to tag along with a friend or recruit someone to go with me.  Yes, sad.  But I would rather ask a friend how to turn on the computer than ask the lab assistant.  I preferred to keep my level of ignorance to a close circle of friends.  DOS commands confused me and made my stomach twist in to knots.  I was convinced that I was going to hit the wrong button and blow up a computer.  Then I would be known around campus as that girl that broke the computer lab.

Still gives me chills...
Still gives me chills…

I really didn’t bother to put in the time to learn how to work a computer.  I figured that as a writer and/or English teacher I wouldn’t ever need to touch a computer.  Only engineers and technology types would really need to master these confusing beasts.  Your brain had to be wired a certain way to grasp codes and prompts and all the necessary details to be fully functional on a computer.  All I had to do was fake it through the few assignments that popped up occasionally, graduate college, and I would never have to use a computer again.  Just like algebra.

One day in Spanish, our professor sent us down to the computer lab.  He was going to have one of the students show us a great new tool that we could use for research.  I groaned.  I really didn’t see the need.  Any research that I couldn’t find in a book or encyclopedia I could find on microfiche.

Remember microfiche???
Remember microfiche???

I followed the class, yawning and detached.  My mind wandered as the student held court in front of a computer.  He was animated as he tried to explain this new “program” to us.  I knew he was one of those technology types so I didn’t really pay attention.  Of course he’s excited, he’s in his element talking about his passion.  But then I started to notice the other students leaning in.  They started peppering him with questions.  They seemed intrigued.  They seemed interested.  I tuned in to what they were asking, what the student was explaining.  It was confusing and didn’t make a lot of sense.  The world, via computers, was connected by a vast web of…  I don’t really know what.  What he was trying to explain seemed incomprehensible.  Like infinity or what is beyond our solar system.  I knew that this was something big.  I knew that this was something that we would all learn more about.  I knew that my plans of never touching a computer again were probably just a pipe dream.  That computer lab in the English building, that is where I was when I learned about the internet.  That is the moment that I knew the world just got a lot smarter.

Still boggles the mind...
Still boggles the mind…

Looking back on those years, it’s hard to believe how far we’ve come.  My first job out of college I had to master Power Point and Excel, programs my kids have since learned in elementary school.  My hatred of computers has turned into an all out love affair.  I’m still not the most technically proficient, but who among us could imagine our lives with out our computers or smart phones?  Who could imagine life with out the World Wide Web?  Something that I had barely heard of only 20 years ago (dear lord) is so integral to our everyday lives now.  The very thing I despised and didn’t understand is the vehicle for something that I do that I love, that gives me so much happiness.  I still get frustrated. I’m still trying to figure out how to add side bars and widgets, but I know I’ll figure it out.  So, I’m not afraid to admit that I was wrong.  Computers are here to stay.  They have become more user friendly to be sure, but I was wrong in my dismissal of them.  I was wrong to think that I wouldn’t have a need for them.  I was ignorant as to all they could do.  Computers were not just some academic requirement that served no practical purpose.  Unlike Algebra…  I was right about that.

“Hello Operator, can you give me number nine? Can I see you later?

Will you give me back my dime?  Turn the oscillator, twist it with a dollar bill,

Mailman bring the paper, leave it on my window sill.”

-The White Stripes, Hello Operator

My husband likes Barry Manilow.  I know.  I married him anyways.  Last Christmas my sister and her husband gave him a Barry Manilow album.  No, they don’t have bad taste in music too, they were building on our annual Christmas gag gift tradition.  This is a relatively new tradition, it started a few years ago when Joe (said husband) stuck a 2 pound weight in a gift bag and presented it to my Brother in Law.  Joe had been teasing him relentlessly after my brother in law injured his shoulder doing a kettle bell workout with relatively light weights, guffawing “I didn’t know they even made kettle balls that small!”  My niece shot back, “I didn’t know they still made sweaters with zippers”.  She was referring to this awful burgundy sweater with a zipper from the chest to the top of the folded over collar.  A sweater that Joe and been wearing every Christmas Day for years.  We all howled with laughter and Joe nodded and admitted that she had out-done him in the smart ass banter that accompanies every family get together.  The next Christmas there was a gift wrapped beautifully for Joe from my niece. Joe opened it to find a hideous Christmas sweater that had obviously been well worn.  In another decade.  It reeked of mothballs.  He was caught by surprise but looked at my niece with a touch of admiration.  He loved her and was proud, and to be a good sport he put it on right away.  He retired the ugly zippered sweater after that year.

So, my sister was eager to have him open his album.  She was watching with anticipation, waiting to pounce with glee when he would surely blush with embarrassment.  Unfortunately my sister was to be sorely disappointed.  He loved the album.  He was touched that they thought of him.  He slowly and gingerly turned the album over, looking from the front to the back cover.  There was a look of nostalgia and wonderment on his face.  My sister’s triumphant smile slowly melted into disappointment.  This wasn’t the reaction she’d been expecting of course.  As Joe looked over the album he exclaimed over different songs, singing some of the verses.  I groaned.  You can take the Utica out of the boy…  well you know.

My stepdad, Tommy, excused himself quietly and left the room.  I’m thinking that he’s sick that his daughter has married someone with such musical taste.  I picture him in the next room shaking his head silently.  I didn’t raise her like this….  My stepdad shaped my musical taste.  I grew up listening to the Beatles, the Stones, Clapton, Hendrix…  he is a walking rock and roll encyclopedia.  He spends hours reading dense volumes of albums and their stats.  You could name some obscure sixties album or B-side and he’d be able to tell you all about the artist, the record and what the monetary value would be if you ran across it at a flea market.  I guess you could say he was like a walking Wikipedia page on the subject, but we are talking about vinyl here, so I’ll stick with the encyclopedia metaphor.

Tommy returns a few minutes later carrying a plastic box.  He ignores our stares and questioning looks as he sets it down carefully on the kitchen table.  We all sit patiently and wait to see what he has unearthed from the room we all refer to as “TommyLand”.  We know better than to ask what it is, he will show us in his slow, methodical way with very little explanation.  His lack of grandstanding actually comes off as quite dramatic somehow.  He unlatches the metal clips on either side of the box and meticulously lifts the lid.  It’s an old turn table.  Joe immediately pulls the Barry Manilow album from it’s protective sleeve and hands it to Tommy.  He is so excited to hear it and he feels validated that my stepdad is offering to play it.  Tommy’s accommodation had nothing to do with Barry Manilow, it’s an opportunity to play with one of his “toys’ and to share it with all of us.

The record starts spinning and we hear a few crackles before the first strains of music emanate from the record player.  After I tear my eyes away from the spectacle of my husband grooving to Barry Manilow, I turn my attention to my son and daughter and nephew (ages 12, 11 and 9).  They are completely engrossed, mouths open, eyes wide in amazement.  They are stupefied and can’t even form sentences to ask the questions…  “What is…  How does it…”

We all try to explain through our laughter how it works, that the needle follows the grooves on the vinyl and …  some how plays the music?  I don’t know, it’s not something we really questioned growing up.  You just tried really hard to not scratch the album and to not jump or dance too close to the turntable and make it skip.  I can’t believe my kids have never seen a record player before.   Something that was so integral to my childhood and in the blink of a few decades it’s gone.  I don’t know why I’m surprised.  When my son was born I had just retired all my cassettes (bye bye awesome mixed tapes I labored over for endless hours..  sniff sniff) and transitioned to cd’s.  Now cd’s are on their way to joining their brethren in the vast wasteland of bygone electronics.  They will be in good company with the 8 track tapes, the VHS tapes, the rotary phone, the black and white t.v. with dials and rabbit ears, the transistor radios, the word processors…. I could go on but this list is starting to make me feel really old.

While I’m getting a kick out of watching their confusion and bewilderment, I’m kind of pissed.  These spoiled little twerps growing up in the digital era have no idea how good they have it.  They want a new song?  Download it instantly.  Listen to it on Spotify.  Want a book?  Order one for your Kindle and you have it within seconds.  Want to watch a music video?  Gone are the days of hoping to catch a glimpse of it on Mtv, you can go on YouTube and see it whenever you want.  They don’t even have to deal with dial up internet access anymore.  Mom forgets to pick you up from practice?  Well just get your smart phone out you little monster and call her and see where she’s at!  Forget the entitlement generation, now we are raising the instant gratification generation…

I tried to explain some of this to my son recently when I had him as a captive audience in the car.  I explained that if I wanted a copy of my favorite song, I would have to try to record it off the radio station onto a cassette tape and hope the radio DJ wasn’t in a chatty mood while my song was playing.  I tried to illicit some sympathy from him when I pointed out that I would sit in my room for an ENTIRE day, listening to my radio, just waiting for that one song to play.   And inevitably it would come on the second you leave the room for an urgent bathroom break.  This is my version of the “When I was your age I had to walk 2 miles in the snow to school” story.  I got no sympathy from my boy.  He looked at me like I was crazy, as in Why would you waste a whole day to do that?

He had no concept of having to wait.  And let me just say, my kids are not spoiled.  Well, no more spoiled than other kids of their generation.  They don’t get everything they want, they aren’t the first to get the new hot thing.  They have to wait/earn/save for some things they’ve really wanted.  But what all this made me realize is that there are so many things that used to be really big deals, things you had to wait for, go to the store for, stand in line for.  Now most of these things can be bought on line faster than you can say “Complete My Purchase”.

This almost makes me feel sorry for these kids.  There’s something to be said for anticipation.  The waiting, the build up makes things so much sweeter.  I remember counting down the days until a record was released.  Or waiting in line at record stores for concert tickets.  Or spending hours in a book store looking through dozens of books trying to decide which one to get, because this purchase was precious.  You didn’t get to go buy books every day so you wanted to make sure you go the right one.  Don’t get me wrong, I love that we have such easy access to music and books and I love to get on YouTube and watch live performances of my favorite bands.  I sometimes feel like I got the Golden Ticket to the Chocolate Factory, so I’m not saying I don’t love the digital age and all it’s perks.   I just wonder what it is our kids will have to hunger for, what will have them antsy with impatience, what will make them mark a date on the calendar with a red Sharpie and wish the days away?

There was another conversation I had with my son soon after.  He asked me what I did for a living before he was born.  I started to tell him that I sold pagers…  and almost instantly wished that I had just made something up.  Now I had to explain the concept of pagers and why someone would need such a device.  You see, if someone wanted to get in touch with you, they called your pager and punched in their phone number, you would see the number on your pager and you would go find a phone or a phone booth and call them back. Again, I get the “You’re crazy” look.  As I’m trying to explain this to him, I realize that it sounds so cumbersome and ridiculous.  I try to make it sound a little better by pointing out that I sold them to corporate accounts, Fortune 500 companies.  He didn’t care.  I’d lost him already.  He was too busy posing his next question to listen as I trailed off about the limited options we had before cell phones were widely available.  He interrupted my reverie, “But Mom, what’s a phone booth?”    Done. Can’t answer another question.  I’m exhausted by all the explaining.  I sighed with resignation, admitting defeat.  I turned to him, “Google it.”      

remember-the-time-blog-hop