In seventh grade, three other schoolmates and I qualified for the regional level of a national math competition. My teammates were all males, all eighth graders and all incredibly talented mathematicians. I was a gawky newcomer, constantly studying out of fear of bringing down the team average. In a few months, my hard work paid off: we qualified for the state competition.
On the day of the tournament, a competitor from another school approached me. After exchanging pleasantries, he ventured to ask, “How’d you get on the team, anyway? Is it because your team needed a girl?” As I attempted to conceal my shock, laughing uneasily and scrambling to come up some sort of self-justification, he followed up unabashedly with, “You are Asian, though, so I guess you can’t be too bad at math.”
This encounter was just one of countless examples of the difficulties I have faced in pursuing the subjects I love: both on account of my gender and on account of my race.
Society encourages boys to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics (hereafter abbreviated as STEM), but from an early age, we discourage girls from these fields in order to prevent our women from becoming too “nerdy.” In one online comic from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, two children, a boy and a girl, receive toys for Christmas. The boy delights in his “Mechablox,” a toy that can be arranged in infinite ways, connected to a computer, and controlled remotely. The girl asks what her doll can do—well, it can be a doll.
Even worse, this childhood dichotomy of gender roles persists well into adulthood. Women make up nearly half of the workforce in the United States but hold about a quarter of STEM jobs. Of the 195 Nobel Laureates for Physics, only two are female. Relative to the general population, there are not many females in scientific fields. The lack of women who reach scientific prominence means that girls have few role models to encourage them towards scientific careers. Thus, the lack of female representation becomes circular.
This inequity manifests itself in virtually every high school competition and research program that I participate in. I feel lucky that my parents introduced me to math and science at a young age, but many girls do not have that opportunity. The underrepresentation of females remains the elephant in the room, either poorly addressed or ignored entirely. I love studying in the fields of math and science, but I’ve come to expect the issue of gender inequality to raise its ugly head when faced with latent hostility from participants, parents and even competition organizers.
To make matters worse, one boy I encountered at the math competition believed that my Asian heritage restored the mathematical skills that my gender had supposedly removed. His remarks, rather than negating each other, insulted me twice over. He belittled my achievements by referencing gender, then discredited whatever remained by referencing my race. As an Asian, I am expected to excel at math and science, yet as a girl, I am not discouraged from this success. As an Asian, my successes are discounted. As a girl, my failures are ascribed to the presumed inferiority of all females.
Because of barriers set by microaggressions and social expectations, scientific fields lose many talented and motivated people, who select themselves out of those studies. People are turned away prematurely from both the natural and theoretical scientific worlds. Ideally, all women and men should feel free to explore science and math and—if they enjoy those fields—to excel at them. Nobody should cast doubt on the skill level of a science major who doesn’t fit the mold that traditional society has perpetuated.
Of course we do not live in a perfect world, but societal presumptions about how a computer programmer or engineer “should” look cannot continue to influence those considering careers in STEM. It is time to stop concentrating on what a scientist “should” look like and instead focus on what scientists do look like: researchers and learners who are focused on their projects, eager to explore and passionate for their work.
Angela Gu is a two-year Upper from Andover, Mass.