On (Not) Being Forced into a STEM Field
Friday, June 1, 2012Tweet
All this recent discussion of gender here, and also this article (and its comments) on girls and Legos, got me thinking back to my experiences in school.
(I know I've shared these thoughts elsewhere, so forgive me if you've heard this before, but I realized I'd never shared it here.)
When I was in school, I generally did well in my math and science classes. I mean, basically, I did well in all my classes (except gym -- I'm not cut out for sports!). Because I was in the gifted program in middle school and honors and AP courses in high school, as were the majority of my friends, I never felt the need to downplay my academic abilities.
What this meant was that I suddenly found myself under immense pressure to go into a STEM (science, technology, engineering, or math) field. This was particularly true when people found out I was going to college for photography and journalism. Instructors tried to impress on me that I had a gift for quantitative reasoning. People tried to guilt me about the fact that there weren't enough women in engineering and girls needed role models. Everyone made it seem as if I had a responsibility to major in a STEM field.
This pisses me off for several reasons.
1) My own interests were completely ignored. My passions were photography and writing. But no one seemed to care; it was all about what fields "needed" me. Nobody was encouraging me to go into a STEM field because I sucked at everything else; no, I knew I could do pretty much anything I wanted to. The key words being I wanted to. And while I liked my AP Physics and AP Calc classes well enough because I had great teachers, I had no burning passion to spend my life pursuing either field.
2) Non-STEM careers were treated as fluff. I just got told repeatedly how I was "wasting" my intelligence because I wasn't going into a STEM field. What?? How would that be any good for our world if all of the brightest people were limited to only a few select professions? Don't you think it's important that the newspapers that inform many, many people's daily decisions be written by people who know what they're talking about, who are going to provide accurate, well-researched information? Granted, I never wanted to write for a newspaper, but trying to keep me out of journalism still makes no sense.
3) This was an insult to women generally. The general feeling I got was not just "there aren't a lot of women in STEM fields" but "it is so rare to find a woman good at science and math that we must snatch you up immediately!" Rather than helping the general perception of women's science and math abilities, this kind of attitude perpetuates the notion that the reason for the gender disparity in STEM fields is that women with quantitative reasoning skills are incredibly hard to find. And that therefore, when you find one, you must force her to major in a STEM field at all costs, regardless of whether she has any interest in it. (See #1.)
4) This encouraged the idea that money is the most important thing in life. All of the above reasons crystallized into one main message: This is the only way you'll make any money. As if making lots of money is more important than doing work you care about. As if all fields other than STEM fields pay a pittance on which no one could live. As if women have the complete inability to negotiate for what they're worth, so their only chance of getting a high salary is to go into a traditionally high-paying field. When people couldn't convince me that I had a moral obligation to balance out the gender inequalities in STEM fields, they thought the money aspect would definitely persuade me.
The irony, of course, is that I now work as a data analyst. I ended up dropping my photo major two weeks into college because I couldn't handle the required art classes, and I focused entirely on journalism. One of my communications instructors saw my abilities and offered me the opportunity to get a master's degree for free with only one extra year of school (which I took, duh). My master's classes and thesis sparked my love of research and statistics. Even then, I ended up getting a job as an administrative assistant and only moving into program evaluation and data analysis work because an opportunity presented itself to take on extra work, and I loved it.
This is how it should be, in my opinion. If it's that important to have more women in STEM fields, then the solution is not to force more women to major in it. We need to provide the opportunities for all students to explore these areas of study, and then provide encouragement for them to pursue the intersection of their gifts and their interests, whatever field that might be in.
I ended up in the field I'm in now not because anyone made me do it, or because I felt an obligation to balance out a gender inequality, or because I wanted to make lots of money (ha, I wish). I'm a data analyst because I was given the opportunity to do statistics work, and when I found I enjoyed it and was good at it, I was encouraged to continue. And now I have the blessing of having extensive experience with both quantitative reasoning and writing/communication, which makes me that much more valuable as an employee and researcher.
I'm curious to hear your experiences, especially if you're female. I've generally only heard stories about women being overtly discouraged from pursuing STEM fields, but I haven't heard of many women being aggressively pushed toward these majors like I was. Please share your own stories in comments!
UPDATE: Also check out "the most patronising attempt to get girls involved in science ever" from Tiger Beatdown.