Okay, everyone knows about Marie Curie and I admit that a famous female mathematician doesn’t leap to my mind, but in my last post I explained that from my perspective, the truly important point for women is the array of choices that we have, more so than in past generations. During my 22 years in the Army I learned to do things that I hadn’t thought possible, especially in the first few years when men were still trying to absorb the fact that women were coming into previously restricted military specialities and assignments. I watched other women do the same and while not all were successful, it taught me some valuable lessons about stepping well outside your comfort zone. However, the doors that could have been opened to me had we understood it when I was younger were math and science. Interestingly, my older sister was inclined to science and good in math from as early as I can recall. Despite the fact that we were in a small town, there was a female science teacher in junior high school who saw that desire in my sister and nutured it from the beginning. (My older sister was also perfect, but that’s another subject.) I was neck-and-neck with my sister academically until I moved from basic arthimetic. When I struggled with algebra, the standard phrase of, “girls aren’t supposed to be good in math”, gave me the out that I needed. I was smart, but not in that and hey, when would I ever really need geometry? My sister was winning science awards left and right, acing trig and calculus, but I could talk rings around her with literature.
I kid you not that she went straight through from first grade to her PhD in Biochemistry, or maybe it was Cell Biology, and let us say that my path included as little science and math as I could get away with. The truth though is that while sure, some people are more obviously inclined to math and science than others, the fear, and therefore reluctance, that most children/adolescents have with regard to math and science can be fairly easily overcome with proper teaching. Now, I am not going to enter into the debate about the shape of our schools, and the education of children in general, because that is a multi-faceted subject. My point is that we still culturally immediately accept when girls don’t want to do math and science. A number of organizations and programs have developed to combat this inclination and if you don’t know about the work of Danica McKellar, former television star (“Wonder Years” and “West Wing”), who has authored books like, “Math Doesn’t Suck”, and become a major advocate for girls overcoming their fear of math, please visit her site of, http://www.mathdoesn’tsuck.com
When we consciously or unconsciously promote the idea that, “math and science aren’t for girls”, we do not only a disservice to girls, but also to ourselves as we lose our standing among other nations with regards to these disciplines. Not all mathematicians are scientifically oriented, but all scientists and engineers need math. Since I don’t have an artistic flair, had I become an engineer, I would have gravitated to the civil engineering side and implemented plans that others designed, but none of that was possible when I wasn’t willing to go beyond fundamental arthimetic. Would I have been better for it? I don’t know, but I love it when I watch Kari Byron on “Mythbusters”, or see interviews with women working in robotics, astronomy, etc.
So if you are in a position to influence a girl/adolescent who is certain she can’t “do math or science”, take some time to find out why and perhaps you can help her overcome the fear – even if you didn’t choose those subjects. I am not saying we don’t need artists, musicians, literature majors, and so forth. I am saying though that we may be closing doors that can be opened wide to lead to other paths.