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On (Not) Being Forced into a STEM Field

Friday, June 1, 2012

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On (Not) Being Forced into a STEM Field | Faith Permeating Life

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.

14 comments:

  1. If someone tried to tell me I "ought" to go into a field that would be a pretty good way to make me steer clear of it. Who wants to base their life choices on evening up the statistics?
    I liked math, but I liked law better and I'm still happy with that choice, although I have since discovered a passion for neurology that will probably always go unrequited.
    My sister is an engineer, because she loves it, but she does sometimes seem a bit uncomfortable with being the *girl* engineer, as if it mattered.

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    1. One thing I didn't even think about until you mentioned your sister is that by pressuring someone to enter a field with a gender imbalance, you're asking them to choice a path with potentially more discrimination, misunderstanding, harassment, you name it. All the more reason to do it only if you're really passionate about that field.

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  2. When I was graduating high school, I was getting sent a lot of mixed messages from people.

    I went to an awesome Catholic high school that put a lot of emphasis on secondary education being really important, it was such a big deal at our school that when you walked along the entryway into the building, there was a huge board of names and what colleges you'd been accepted to.

    However, the messages that I was getting from church and bloggers I followed on the Internet (I was influenced by some very socially conservative folks) was that college was for meeting the man you were going to marry and that it's not a big deal because you won't be using that degree anyway because you were going to be popping out babies and be busy with motherhood.

    Not knowing what I wanted to do exactly and not wanting to spend much money on something that I wasn't sure of.. I ended up going to the community college near where I grew up, did two years of general studies and then switched to their computer engineering program, a decision I largely made because I decided I wanted to make websites for a living, and given the choice between graphic design and computer engineering, it seemed like the computer engineering degree was going to be more helpful.

    By far and large, the decision to go into computer engineering was supported. A lot of people expressed thoughts along the lines "About time you figured that out," but there were a few naysayers from the church who were a little less than supportive because of the belief that girls shouldn't be engineers, but it was something that was expressed once and wasn't mentioned again and then I ended up leaving that church for other reasons so the discouragement didn't affect me so much.

    For me... the feeling pushed into marriage is the much larger source of contention about my past.

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    1. It's honestly so weird to me that there are still people who have ideas like "college is for finding a man to marry" and "girls shouldn't be engineers." I guess I am very fortunate to have grown up in the family, church, and community that I did. I'm glad you ended up going after the major you were interested in, and I can definitely see why being pushed toward marriage would be a bigger issue. It comes up over and over in the discussions here, but seriously -- different people have different life paths! Better to follow your own path imperfectly than spend your life trying to fit someone else's path.

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    2. I think the lesson I take out of it is that you really *do* have to follow your own path, and that there are many people out there who mean well with their advising but they're not always right, and you can't just go around making choices based on what you think will please others.

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    3. Most definitely. Especially because it is literally impossible to make everyone happy -- there's always going to be someone judging you for something. So you might as well do what's best for you!

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  3. I've had very similar experiences to yours. I wasn't pushed into STEM fields per se, as math is not my strong suit. STEM gives me the twitches, basically. I am much stronger in the liberal arts.

    When I was in high school, I was fairly certain of what I wanted to do. One of my friends told me that I was literally throwing my life away. I could have chosen to do anything (um, no, not really, but thanks for the overshooting of my abilities?) and he felt I chose to take a much too simplistic path.

    Fast forward a couple of years, and I switched one of my majors out, and wound up spending a lot of time in the history and women and gender studies departments. I had couple of professors really pulling for me to pursue a career as an academic in those fields as I was one of their most promising students in years. I had an intrinsic knowledge of research methodolgy and could articulate my findings well. I caught on to concepts quickly and asked probing questions. When I decided not to pursue grad school, but rather one of my other degrees, they were displeased to say the least. They thought I was squandering my talent for the sake of fitting in to some ideal.

    I think about it sometimes, what would have happened if I had pursued grad school. There are whims when I wish I had done it. Then I think of how content I really am with my life, and how everything has worked together in ways I couldn't have had imagined.

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    1. If you'd gone for the master's, you would have people telling you to get a Ph.D. next, seriously. I never had any desire to get a master's degree, and I only got one because it seemed silly not to take the opportunity given to me, but when people try to push me toward a Ph.D., I'm like HAHA no. If you're happy in your career and you have all the skills you need to be successful at it, then you're good. And if you find out down the road that you want to pursue a different field or you need additional skills, there's plenty of time to get more education later. That's the way I look at it, anyway.

      I also had a similar experience in college with instructors trying to push me toward their fields, and it was honestly because of my writing skills. I wrote a final paper for my first-year history class that was basically just a good research paper, but my instructor saw it as a sign that I had some gift for history and tried to convince me to switch my major. The same thing happened in my chemistry class -- we had to do a research paper, and I seriously did the most half-ass job on it because we only had to cite two sources, so I was like, let me read two articles and then summarize what they say. And my instructor was like, "This is the best paper I've ever received! You have a gift for understanding science!" Thankfully I recognized that it was just a reflection of my writing and research skills, which -- hey, look at that -- are what I studied for my degrees. So it all worked out :)

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  4. I majored in English because it was my favorite subject, but I do like math. (Not science, though- I hate science.) It's so funny- even though I took two AP calculus classes in high school and placed out of math in college, everyone who has met me since high school assumes that since I majored in English, I must hate/be bad at math. As if you can't like both!

    I think a lot of people forget that in the long run, your college major really doesn't matter that much. Employers want to see that you have a bachelor's degree but aren't always so concerned with what the degree is in. In my field (college textbook publishing), we have a lot of English majors, but I've worked with people who have majored in everything from business to political science to Spanish to math, and don't necessarily work on textbooks in the same discipline in which they majored. I know plenty of people who majored in some kind of liberal arts and went into business. I had a roommate who majored in nursing and is now a lawyer. My dad majored in early childhood education and he's worked in commercial property management for about thirty years. So, in a nutshell- you should major in what you like. It's not worth wasting college on a major you hate.

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    1. That's a really good point! That's something I try to impress on people as a job search coach -- just because you majored in something, doesn't mean you're forced to only work in that field for the rest of your life. Your skills are what's most important.

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  5. I always felt kind of like the odd one out in my family because I had no interest whatsoever in pursuing a career in a STEM field, unlike everyone else in my immediate family (males and females included). My dad was an engineer and is getting a second master's in finance, my mom was a dental hygienist and is getting a second bachelor's in finance, my older sister is a nurse, my brother is double majoring in business finance and accounting, and my little sister is planning on studying dental hygiene. And then there was me...trying to decide whether I should major in English to teach, journalism, or theatre.

    It was certainly frustrating, particularly in college, as I felt like a lot of friends who were in the STEM fields felt like their major was "more difficult" than mine. And sure, I didn't have to take labs or the always dreaded organic chemistry, but I did have to take classes that required me to write 15, 20, sometimes 30 pages a week on top of reading assignments and four other classes.

    Our culture has this stigma that the more analytical thinkers have more difficult jobs, but that's not necessarily the case. Different things are equally difficult for different people. I'm certainly not cut out to be a theoretical physicist, but chances are, a lot of theoretical physicists aren't cut out to be writers. We all have our different strengths, and while some of us are more "well-rounded" in our strengths than others, that's no reason to ignore an individual's interests and desires, particularly for something as important as a career. I mean...you're theoretically going to be doing this for the rest of your life. It seems ridiculous to do something you hate.

    It reminds me of the quote from Albert Einstein, "Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid."

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    1. Our culture has this stigma that the more analytical thinkers have more difficult jobs, but that's not necessarily the case.
      Yes, this! For example, people look down on Mike's job as a restaurant manager, but I could never do what he does. I could never even be a server. I can't handle that much interaction with people. I do way better working with numbers, words, and small teams of people than large numbers of customers. We should be celebrating good skill-interest-need matches rather than "ranking" different jobs in importance or difficulty.

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  6. I was forced into STEM at a young age and not exposed to anything else. I went to a top engineering school made it through (barely) and since joining the work force I have been in two industries in two years and very unhappy. I am 24 looking for yet another new opportunity preferably a career change. I feel behind other women because I do not know what I would like to do at all. I wish I had been raised in a way that let me find my passion so I could be confident and happy with my career and not pretending to be something I'm not.

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    1. I had/have the same experience as you, but I'm older, so I feel way behind... You still have time at 24.

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