Monday, November 20, 2017

It wasn't just merit

Three children doing arithmetic problems on a blackboard. Image source.
I'd like to talk about my experiences in school- specifically, what it was like being a girl who excelled in math and science. In the past, I thought I did it all on my own merit- I wasn't held back by sexism in grades K-12. And yes, that's partly true. Sexism didn't affect my success in math/science in any meaningful way back then. But. That doesn't mean it was all my own merit. I now see that, all along the way, my parents and teachers encouraged me and shaped my expectations of what I could do. I was in an environment which pushed me to follow my passions and didn't think there was anything weird about a girl being good at those things. But I now see so many places where there could have been sexism or other types of discrimination, places where I could have subconsciously internalized the idea that participating in math contests is just not the sort of thing that I do.

My parents both have backgrounds related to computers and engineering. So they were happy to teach me all about science. In kindergarten, I was fascinated by the planets in the solar system, and my parents told me all about them. Throughout my childhood, they bought me science kits and books full of logic problems, because I loved that stuff. They told me it was so great that I was interested in science.

Actually, I liked art class the most, back in elementary school. But my mom and dad aren't interested in making arts or crafts, so they didn't really have the ability to encourage me in art to the extent that they encouraged me in math and science. They bought me all the art supplies and craft kits I asked for, but because they weren't personally interested in it, there wasn't the same "wow it's fantastic that you're good at this" that there was for science-y things. And that's not their fault, but my point is that I was raised to value math and science much more highly than other subjects. It was probably unintentional- I know my parents would support me no matter what job I decided on- but at the same time, I don't really see a way for parents to avoid passing that kind of bias to their kids. It seems like, if you have parents who are good at a certain thing, you'll naturally end up believing that it's "normal" to value that particular thing. I can imagine there are kids who would be good at some certain activity, but because no adults in their life do that activity, it never really occurs to them to do it.

My parents told me "you're good at math and science- you should totally be an engineer!" and guess what, I'm an engineer now. And yes, of course I love it, I wouldn't want to do any other job, but I wonder how much that choice was influenced by the idea that "kids like you, who are good at math and science, should become engineers when they grow up"- because that's pretty much what I was taught. That's what I always thought I was "supposed" to do.

In high school I discovered contest math. Well, actually, those of us in the upper-level math classes were required to participate in math league. We had to attend 3 math league meets per year. My 9th grade math teacher told us that math league questions were so hard and hardly anybody ever gets any points. She framed it as something that we had to do, but nobody really has fun or is successful at it. I went to the first math league meet of the year and scored a bunch of points- I don't remember the exact number, maybe 10 out of a possible 18. Which is way above average (the questions are hard, but it turns out I'm a math genius).

The next day, my math teacher was like, "So who went to the math league meet last night? ... So... did anybody get any points?" and I told her how many, and she was shocked and I was kind of embarrassed, like I was freakishly good at it and I was weird.

So that's how it was my freshman year of high school. I went to exactly 3 math league meets (the bare minimum that was required), did really well, but it never occurred to me "wow I am really good at this and I really like solving these types of problems- maybe I should go to more than 3 meets." Because my 9th grade math teacher had set the expectation that math league isn't something people are actually interested in, and the other kids complained about how hard the questions were.

In 10th grade, I thought I would just do the same thing. I attended the first 3 meets of the year, thinking then I'd be done and wouldn't have to worry about it for the rest of the school year. At the third meet, I got 18 points. Out of 18. Pretty amazing- it was very rare that anyone in our school got 18 points. Still, I considered myself done with math league. Until the day that all the different clubs at school were having their photos taken for the yearbook, and when I got there for the math league picture, the head of the math department was like "where is Perfect Number?" and handed me the trophy that our school had won at that third meet, and I had to hold it, front and center, in the yearbook photo.

And then I kind of felt like, well I'm holding the trophy in the yearbook photo, I guess I can't just quit math league now.

So I went to every meet that year, and I found the other kids who were actually interested in math league. I qualified to go to the state math league competition, and it was great. Nerds everywhere! I loved it. I had finally found my people.

After the state math league meet, our coach gave everyone an application for the national math league meet. (Yes, math league teams have coaches. Also we sometimes referred to ourselves as "mathletes." Because of course we did. Also, fun fact: A group of nerds is called a nerd herd.) My parents were like "are you going to apply for it?" and I said no. They wanted to know why not. Eh, it just didn't seem like the kind of thing I would do. I wasn't really the kind of person who filled out applications or attended national competitions. Just seemed kind of weird.

My parents were like "but you had such a good time at the state math league contest" and I realized I didn't have any good reason not to go to the national one. I had just thought it didn't seem like the sort of thing I do, but there was really no basis for that belief.

So I filled out the application. I made the team. My mom told me I had to write a letter to my school and ask them to cover the costs for me to go on the trip. Did that. Did more math. Had a great time.

And after it was established that I was a huge math nerd and that I was totally the type of person who missed school to attend math competitions in other states, I started pursuing them more and more. I found so many different math contests. I met other math nerds online. I took the USAMO.

But I see now that raw talent alone was not what allowed me to participate in those contests. It was adults telling me "you're really good at math, therefore you should participate in this optional contest"- and sometimes they needed to convince me because I just had never thought of myself as the type of person who did that sort of thing. It wasn't enough to have the ability- I also needed to have an understanding of my own identity that included being a math nerd and/or math genius. And let me tell you, it was a big step when I decided I was a math nerd, back in high school. Before, I felt social pressure to "be normal"- straighten my hair, shave my legs, put on makeup, don't wear t-shirts all the time- basically to meet society's standards of what high school girls should look like. I didn't want to (it seemed like a lot of work with no real purpose), but I felt like everyone was judging me. (They probably weren't, I was just insecure. You know how high school is.) When I decided I was a nerd, it meant I could stop trying to meet society's standards of what "normal" looks like- I could stop trying to be someone I'm not. And most importantly, I no longer had to hide my math skills. I no longer felt embarrassed for being freakishly smart. (I definitely had to deal with sexism for this aspect- I've written before about how presenting in a more feminine way would make me "look like" I wasn't as much of a math nerd, and it wasn't until college that I decided I could be cute and feminine like I wanted, without calling my nerdiness or math skills into question.)

And I started applying for colleges. Because my parents taught me that everyone is supposed to go to college, that's normal, that's what we do. I always knew I was going to go to college and major in engineering- the only choice was which college. What if I had been raised in an environment where going to college wasn't seen as "normal"? Would I have been able to recognize that it would be a really good thing for me and that I was capable of doing it?

I went to a well-ranked engineering school, and a lot of my classmates were planning to get Phds. Many of them had known for their whole lives that they wanted to get a Phd. I never even considered it. My parents don't have Phds, and there was never really anything that prompted me to ask "I wonder if it would be good for me to get a Phd." I thought "normal" was you go to college for 4 years and then you're done with school. That's what I had been expecting my whole life.

I remember some of the other students did co-ops- which meant working at a company for one semester, instead of taking classes. I never even considered doing a co-op because I just didn't get it. Like, the way life is supposed to work is you go to college for four years, and then after that, you get a job. Right? Taking a semester off to do a co-op (or study abroad) didn't fit into my idea of "normal," so I never even thought "hey is that something I would want to do?" And nobody ever sat me down and specifically addressed my not-getting-it and explained that no, my ideas about "how life is supposed to work" weren't necessarily true. Maybe I wouldn't have been able to do a co-op anyway because I was double-majoring and it wouldn't have been possible to take no classes for a whole semester. Maybe. Who knows? The opportunity was there, but I never even looked into whether it could be a good thing for me, because it didn't fit into my assumptions about how life is supposed to work.

My advisor talked me into getting a masters degree. The school had one of those programs where you can take some grad-level classes while you're an undergrad and then finish the masters degree after only 1 extra year. I wasn't interested at first, because I had always figured I would do 4 years of college and be done. Why would I want to do something different than that? Isn't that the "normal" thing people are "supposed" to do? But my advisor was a really really big fan of the school's MS program. He was really persistent- he talked a lot of us into it. I finally decided it was a good deal, and that's how I got my masters degree in electrical engineering. (Which, actually, is a really good thing for me. As it turns out, there's a big difference between "I have a degree in electrical engineering" and "I have a degree in electrical engineering and my thesis was on this one specific aspect of robotics" in a job interview.)

And let me tell you about when I started studying Chinese. So I'm like, hey I'm going on this mission trip to China, so I should learn how to say some things I guess. But my entire life I had heard people saying "I tried to study this foreign language, but... it turns out my brain just can't learn languages." A LOT of Americans say stuff like that. As if speaking two languages is so unbelievable and superhuman, us mere mortals can't expect we can actually do it. (Oddly, though, I never heard anyone say we shouldn't expect immigrants to learn English because "maybe some of them just can't learn languages.")

So I started studying Chinese, with the belief that maybe no matter how hard I study, I won't ever be able to speak Chinese, because white people just can't, it's way too hard. I heard people say that if you're not exposed to the sounds of a different language as a baby, then you just can't learn it. What a bunch of nonsense.

However, I did know one white missionary who was able to speak Chinese. He was the proof that it could be possible.

And even when I started learning how to say a few sentences, I didn't try to learn the characters, because wow how can anyone learn all those? I actually was skeptical over whether Chinese people really do read and write in Chinese characters- it just seemed so impossible. (Umm, they do.) I didn't even try at first- I thought "well I'll just be illiterate." Surely white people can't really learn to read Chinese characters.

And then I started taking an actual Chinese class in college and guess what, when we learned vocabulary words, we learned to write them in Chinese characters because OBVIOUSLY that's part of what it means to learn a vocabulary word. There was no talk of "but maybe it's too hard and impossible to actually learn to write Chinese." The professor expected us to read and write. Because, OBVIOUSLY.

So please don't go around telling people "Chinese is the hardest language in the world", or that it's unfathomably astounding that someone can speak two languages, or that it's very common that people "just can't" no matter how hard they try, or any crap like that. I really believe that these myths stop a lot of Americans from even trying to learn a second language, even though they totally do have the ability. Yes, it's hard- but it's not so hard that it's pointless to even try.

And by the way, I now speak Chinese fluently, can read and write Chinese characters, and I'm still as white as ever.

It's all about your beliefs and expectations about whether or not you're able to do something, internalized from society and role models in your life before you even try to do the thing.

Of course I worked hard. Of course I have the natural ability to excel in math and engineering. But that's not enough. I also needed adults and role models in my life to tell me which direction I should work hard in. I needed people who said "you're good at this, how about you take this opportunity, I bet you would really like it." And fortunately I had those people in my life. I'm not aware of any parents or teachers who didn't encourage me because I'm a girl. But now I see many places where that could have happened, and probably does happen for other girls. (Or really any demographic that's not "expected" to be good at math and science.) I can now see how there were so many ideas I internalized about what's "normal" and what sorts of things I would or would not be involved in, about my identity, really. I always knew that I was the type of person who would go to college. But I didn't think I was the type of person who would get involved in contest math until my parents explicitly pointed out to me "hey you enjoyed doing that one contest, how about you do more?" It's not about talent alone- I see so many ways that sexism, racism, and other forms of bigotry can influence kids, make them internalize messages about what they should or shouldn't try.

One more thing I will say: Back in middle school and high school, I often heard adults make comments about how it's great that I like math because "we need more girls in math" or "isn't it nice to see a girl winning the math award." And I hated it because for me, there wasn't any sexism that discouraged me from succeeding in math and science class (at least in grades K-12, where all the grading is objective). It felt like they were saying I had overcome something internal, as if femininity was an obstacle I had to defeat in order to be a math genius, instead of just "I am a math genius and being an girl really has nothing to do with it." Really, if you want to bring gender into it, it's not about what I did, it's about what society didn't do. Society often discourages girls from pursuing math and science, but in my case, society did no such thing (at least at that age). Good for you, society!

When kids are that young, they're not really able to question and reject the expectations that society puts on them. If there is sexism or other prejudice that tries to hold them back, they won't recognize it as incorrect and fight against it unless an adult in their life tells them they should. How can a kid know that "people of this certain demographic don't do this certain thing" is a factually incorrect statement? They're not born with an innate understanding of reality; they're learning everything from scratch based on what adults teach them. So don't go and tell the girl "it's great you're doing this because we need more girls in math"- no, tell that to the parents and the teachers. Tell them good job not being sexist, good job recognizing students' natural talent and encouraging them in that direction. When kids are that young, they're not the ones overcoming sexism. They're just doing what their parents and teachers expect and encourage them to do. (Or at least, this was my experience- if yours was different, go ahead and leave a comment.)

It takes more than just skill and hard work. Kids also need access to education and opportunities. But it's more than that too. They need people to tell them "you are good at this, therefore you are totally the kind of person who should choose to take this opportunity, it will be really good for you." Otherwise they might believe the stereotypes and not even realize they have the ability to excel.

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