Here’s a chronological list of things I wanted to be when I grew up: astronaut, surgeon, marine biologist, fashion designer, singer, actress, writer.
When I was twelve, my science teacher, an awesome woman who saw something in me and did her best to nurture it, recommended me for a camp at Miami University for kids who were “gifted and talented” in math and science. Anyone who knows me now likely finds this laughable, but it’s true that I once excelled in those subjects. I was even pulled out of fourth-grade math for one-on-one enrichment (i.e., logic problems) because I needed more of a challenge.
At that point in my life, math and science camp was one of the best things to ever happen to me. I got to live in a dorm with girls from around Ohio, girls who knew nothing about my life in Cincinnati, so I could be whatever I wanted. I thought our resident assistant, a college student herself, was the coolest person in the world. With my new friends, I shook my skinny butt in the dorm hallway to Sir-Mix-a-Lot, wandered around the leafy campus like I was in a movie, scribbled down equations, and engaged in some pretty cool science experiments.
And then I came back home, entered junior high, and forgot I ever cared about science and math. My friends were all smart, but suddenly the only things that mattered were gossip, clothes, and boys. Cheerleading, which I tried out for while plainly saying to the judges, “I can’t do this.” And musical theatre. It became very cool to be able to sing because then maybe you could become famous or something.
I ended up immersing myself in theatre and music. It may be that I was drawn to them over math and science, but what’s more likely is that I was more comfortable with a script, a body mic, and a pair of jazz shoes. I was told in so many ways by society that the arts were a fine things for both girls and boys to explore, whereas math and science was the realm of boys. Theatre did a lot for my self-esteem and self-expression, whereas math competitions and science fairs seemed like ways to make me feel unworthy and incapable. I felt safe with language, creativity, and performance.
By the time I saw the connections between these subjects when I made a rather pitiful attempt at music theory, I had developed the idea that my brain just didn’t work that way, that I wasn’t cut out for math and science. Pretty odd for someone once considered “gifted and talented” in those very subjects.
But this story plays out over and over again in schools around the world. Girls typically turn away from STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) around the same age I did. In Australia, the gender disparity today is greater than it was in the 1980s, which was the very decade in which I racked up my math and science achievements but kept my pull-ups in the President’s Physical Fitness Challenge to seven so as not to embarrass Kevin Zinke, who had managed 10. (Along with the notion that girls should not beat boys at their own games, I possessed freakish upper-body strength as a child.)
AAUW’s 2010 study “Why So Few?” reveals that girls underrate their skills in these subjects:
[G]irls assess their mathematical ability lower than do boys with equivalent past mathematical achievement. At the same time, girls hold themselves to a higher standard in subjects like math, where boys are considered to excel. Because of this, girls are less likely to believe that they will succeed in a STEM field, and, therefore, are less likely to express interest in a STEM career.
[G]ender differences in self-confidence in STEM subjects begin in middle school and increase in high school and college, with girls reporting less confidence than boys do in their math and science abilities. In part, boys develop greater confidence in STEM through experience developing relevant skills.
So how could someone have changed my mind about math and science even after the damage was done? By telling me that men still control all the fields that make up entertainment and that this is partly because they make up the vast majority of music producers, sound engineers, film producers, film directors and editors, technical directors, composers, designers, game developers, etc., etc. Cyndi Lauper just won the Tony Award for best score (Kinky Boots), and she was the first woman to do so. It only took 67 years of Tony Awards.
There are some innovative programs out there that are trying to increase girls’ participation in STEM by drawing on their interests in creativity, performance, and entertainment–turning girls into creators of culture instead of simply consumers, actors instead of objects. If it draws them further into math and science, maybe we’ll also gain more research on women’s health and more creative ideas for dealing with global warming, saving honeybees, or promoting sustainable infrastructure.
Gender Amplified supports women music producers by motivating girls through workshops like “Turntablism 101” and “Music Production on Smart Phones.” Rock It: Science, a partnership between Girls Rock! Seattle and the Pacific Science Center “teaches girls the underlying physics of sound and music as well as audio engineering concepts..in the context of writing music and creative expression.”
Nevin Erönde, a sound engineer, and Andrea Hasselager, a copywriter and interactive designer, created Game Girl Workshop, teaching Palestinian girls how to develop video games. Black Girls CODE offers the National STEM Video Game Challenge, “Build a Webpage in a Day,” and iPod film school. And Girls Scouts in Los Angeles can now work toward a video game design patch!
Reel Girls supports girl-created media through instruction and mentoring. Check out their award-winning videos! Columbia Public Schools, Stephens College, and Columbia Access Television have come together to offer Citizen Jane Summer Film Academy, which helps girls create short films that are aired on local television.
Ah, to be twelve all over again. I’d take all the workshops I could afford. And do fifteen pull-ups.