This article first appeared in I Hope You Like Feminist Rants – a very excellent magazine by Abigail Tarttelin.
I went to a Girls Into Engineering day once, more than twenty years ago. It was depressing. We made rape alarms and machine-etched drinks coasters. Was this what female engineers did? It seemed bleakly staged, a token nod to ‘women’s stuff.’ Not surprisingly, I was one of the few girls I knew who chose to study maths and physics past the age of sixteen. Even though I went to an all-girls’ school, in my physics ‘A’ Level class I had a sole classmate. Back then, the question was already starting to form on policy-makers’ lips: how could they close the gender gap in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects? Why weren’t girls choosing to study these subjects at university?
In a 2011 report, Engineering UK revealed that the UK had the lowest percentage of female engineers in Europe, at a paltry 8.7%. It’s not that girls don’t do well in these subjects. Kevin Stannard, writing in the Times Educational Supplement, said this:
“Girls do at least as well as boys in these subjects up to the point where they get to choose routes out of them. So it’s not about girls underachieving once they have opted to specialise; it’s about why they don’t opt for specialist STEM subjects in the first place. It’s about ‘sticky floors’ not ‘glass ceilings’. Gender stereotyping is an issue. School students are making subject choices at a time when they are developing their identity and exploring their self-image. Crucial to this is how they see themselves in relation to the subjects they are studying.”
How they see themselves. Self-talk. Self-efficacy. Perhaps it has something to do with how we, as grown-ups, talk to our daughters about science. Does that remind of you of anything?
I have two daughters of my own. And let’s say you have a daughter too. Do you complain, in front of her, that you are fat? That your butt is too big? Your tummy too wibbly? That you are, yet again, on a diet to lose weight?
No. You don’t. Because you’ve realised that this sort of talk is a Sisyphean burden to heap upon her. You don’t want your daughter to grow up thinking that she needs to conform to some impossible beauty standard invented by people who don’t live in the real world. In her world. You want her to be in love with her body and to be confident in her skin. So why bring her up believing that she can’t ‘do’ science? Take a sip of coffee, and think about your own attitude to numbers, to sums, to science. You might be unintentionally sabotaging her in an even more insidious way.
Take, for instance, swallowing and sharing inept ‘scientific’ reporting. Would you spit out your coffee if I told you that the velvety brown liquid lubricating your tonsils contains vast quantities of oxidane, a major component of human urine? I know, because I saw that on Facebook. So it MUST BE TRUE. Which means that drinking coffee is basically like drinking wee, right? Or acid rain, which is also mostly composed of oxidane. Another name for that stuff? Hydrogen oxide. Hydroxyl acid. Chemicals, chemicals everywhere. And another, more pedestrian, name for this chemical?
It’s just this kind of misleading metonymy that leads to whole domino rallies of stupid. It’s probably not your fault: don’t beat yourself up about it. It’s not your fault that we live in a society that prizes hyperbole over calm thought; where journalists have been forced into quick and dirty pseudoanalysis based on regurgitation of pre-written ‘reports.’ Reports supplied by specialists who know that time-starved journos are unlikely to understand basic statistical analysis, let alone have the resources to interpret it, so they’ll spew it, unchallenged. Hell, in a world where the average attention span is about eight seconds, who can even begin to decode a scientific paper written in gobbledegook?
When the media feeds your daughters regurgitated ‘facts’, and when your daughter interprets those as a truth, who are you gonna call? What recourse do you have when your daughter decides for herself that maths and science and data and money and analysis is hard and not girly and it’s much cooler to be arty and intuitive and f*ck all that sh*t?
It’s tempting to shrug in sympathy, to agree with her. But if you do that, you’re feeding the sense of disconnection your daughter is learning to experience with all things ‘science’. I recently challenged a tweet from a publisher of colourful, story-rich picture books. They were promoting a beautiful book which I own, aimed at young children and packed full of opportunities for the child to count and add up. Yet they touted it as an opportunity for parents to help tame ‘the math monster.’ I replied that I had never met a single young child who didn’t like counting. It worried me how they were projecting parents’ insecurities on to preschoolers.
The Institute of Engineering and Technology recently found that a whopping eighty-three percent of UK mums and dads have been unable to answer questions from their children about STEM subjects. And even worse, sixty-three percent of parents admitted to making things up rather than admitting they didn’t know the answer. You shouldn’t feel bad. There is something you can do. You can say this:
“I don’t know the answer, but let’s try and find out. It might be fun.”
The hope I have is this: that we stop teaching our daughters to hate numbers. To think it cool to not understand. That passing on your own number phobia becomes as taboo as whingeing about your jelly thighs in front of her.
Because you don’t have the right to rob her of those most basic life skills just as you don’t have the right to tell her she should be ashamed of her body. You don’t have the right to make her feel ashamed of her sexuality or gender identity, and you don’t have the right to make her ashamed of her brilliant mind.
So stop it. Stop acting like a fairy in a cupcake cafe. Stop pretending you don’t have a clue about money. Stop projecting your mathematical insecurities onto her when she’s doing her homework. She might love maths. Evidence says that the more comfortable and familiar a family is with maths and science, the more likely a child is to do well. They call it ‘science capital.’ If you’re struggling, find her a friend or mentor who really, really likes numbers; who is crazy about how beautiful they are. Who can appreciate that the arts and the sciences coexist on a spectrum, and that music is science is literature is maths is art is everything. That most Nobel prizewinners in the sciences have been voracious creators and consumers of the arts. That science is a springboard to absolutely anything. That it will teach her how to think creatively; how to think.
Thankfully, there are lots of brilliant resources to help you begin. Schools have started hosting after-lessons clubs, where parents and children hang out together and do fun science. Websites like www.futuremorph.org and www.bbc.co.uk/iwonder pose questions like ‘Is it OK to eat snot?’ Marvellous comedians like Helen Arney combine science and singing in shows called ‘Just for Graphs.’ Look around, and you’ll see that you don’t have to be a geek or wear a white lab coat to ‘get’ science.
It annoys me to see a film like The Martian failing my admittedly just-invented version of the Bechdel Test. The premise of Man Growing Potatoes In Shit In Space is quite fun and I wanted to love it, but what gives? Have you noticed the male maths geniuses are allowed to be ugly and fat and sweaty, sleeping in their offices, while the females are fresh out of a catsuit catalogue, all hot mascara, tight butts and dewy eyes: gorgeous while they reel off complex coordinates that make us mortals feel seasick? It’s as if these plastic female boffins are a different species, and that’s why they can do maths. I beg to differ. We can all do maths.
If I were in charge of education in the UK, I’d stop forcing sixteen-year-olds to narrow down their field of study to only a handful of subjects. I’d adopt a system like the Scottish Highers or the International Baccalaureate, allowing students to study five or six subjects to age eighteen, if they wish.
For me, having to choose was like lopping off limbs. I did ‘A’ Levels in Maths, Physics, and Russian, but I wanted to do Art, English, French, and Chemistry too. I work in the arts, but I’m incredibly grateful for my science degree. What it gave me was the tools to feed my curiosity.
I want to see more numerate, normal-looking women on TV. In films. In books. I don’t want them to be super nerds or geniuses. I just want them to be able to think critically. Or do times tables. Or work out that pseudoscience is pseudoscience; that correlation does not equal causation; that they are smart enough to understand whatever they want to understand, and that if a right-angled triangle should happen to connect their vagina to their hip to their mind, then damn right they can work out the hypotenuse.