“There was an enormous body of masculine opinion to the effect that nothing could be expected of women intellectually. Even if her father did not read out loud these opinions, any girl could read them for herself; and the reading, even in the nineteenth century, must have lowered her vitality, and told profoundly upon her work. There would always have been that assertion—you cannot do this, you are incapable of doing that—to protest against, to overcome.”
This is the epigraph of a paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology titled “Stereotype Threat and Women’s Math Performance” (Spencer et al. 1999). I’ve got to start by saying that this is an amazing quotation to open a paper. Woolf published A Room of One’s Own in 1929, when the borders surrounding the acts of being and doing were explicit and codified for women. Decades later, in 1999, Woolf’s lamentation remained relevant and remains relevant in 2016. Part of Spencer’s doctoral dissertation was this study on the effect of stereotype threat, which the authors define as “the experience of being in a situation where one faces judgment based on societal stereotypes about one’s group”, on how individuals deal with situations where their actions may reinforce the existing stereotype. Not only was this research unique at the time for exploring the experience of being judged or stereotyped, but it also started by focusing on a societally common but rarely critically examined stereotype—that females perform poorly in math compared to males. Spencer hypothesized, correctly, that when you know someone is judging you, that the expectations set for you are low or negative, that knowledge interferes with how well you can do, even if you are capable of performing well.
I have been told, since early high school, that I am not a strong math student. I took for granted that this was probably true, since I was hearing it from teachers. I reasoned that my struggles with math were a result of some existing deficiency, and that the fear I felt towards math, and by extension science, was normal for kids who just weren’t good at math. I took for granted that everyone learned math the same way, and that textbooks taught math the right way, and that if I couldn’t study and see improvement, it had to be my fault. Those beliefs were confirmed by adults around me—even when I asked a high school teacher to give me approval to take calculus the following year, she wouldn’t let me because I hadn’t performed well enough in her class, and told me that math is not for everyone. I held these words well into college, so much so that I almost didn’t pursue a science major because I was terrified of failing in quantitative classes. I almost didn’t do what I am actually good at because it had been decided, long ago, perhaps in the womb, that I was not good at math.
But somehow, against mounting evidence to my discredit, I am training to become a scientist, an expert who measures the world and calculates observations and says things that weren’t known before. The significance of how fucking insane and emotional this is for me is probably lost on people who haven’t really had explicit doubt about their capability expressed directly to them at a formative age. But I think for a lot of people, women and brown and Black people, this experience is woven into their personal narratives. In my case, the fear of math was kind of a gateway drug to the more potent rage I began to feel towards the notion I couldn’t do something. But the anger about being told what I couldn’t do and feeling of being trapped by expectations didn’t suddenly make math a breeze. I continued to struggle, but I excelled in other ways which ultimately kept me afloat. I decided at the end of my third year in college that the only way I could be happy with myself would be by doing the thing no one but me (and a mentor or two) could imagine me doing.
I don’t talk about this much with anyone because generally, it psyches me out to remember how I’ve failed, and to remember how much it hurts to just feel dumb for about a decade. But these feelings rushed to the surface this month when I took an intensive mathematical modelling course for the January term. The course was filled with ladies and a few minority students and, in this way, I did not feel out of place. I really loved the class, I learned a lot, and as the weeks went by I gained confidence I never had before. I was looking forward to feeling accomplished by the end, but then something happened that tore a wound that had never fully healed. I was told by someone I respect and learned a great deal from that it was clear I couldn’t solve an equation (though I had only looked at it for a few seconds) and that I needed a leg up that others did not. In that end-of-the-day exhaustion that makes everyone a little grouchy, this person may have accidentally said something insensitive. I get that. But there’s something about assumptions, something about benefits-of-doubts, that were not on my side in that short interaction. In that moment, I smiled and moved on with the conversation, but I had the wind knocked out of me in a way that some people may never understand (and I hope you don’t have to). This was the fourth time in two and a half years of graduate school that someone in a higher academic position has told me directly that it seems I can’t do something and that perhaps that’s just the way things are. The fourth.
I’m writing this now, sort of to myself, sort of for people who are going through something similar, to say that I will not smile the next time this happens. I’m not going to move on and cry later. The reason that stereotypes, especially the unconscious ones, go unchallenged is that it's often impolite to challenge them. The idea that I come from an background that has instilled self-doubt in me for a long time, and that stereotype threat only strengthens self-doubt, seems to have never crossed most professors minds. Some would say that worrying about every individual’s background should not be part of a professor’s job, but I think, last I checked, it’s part of being a thoughtful human. So in the spirit of calling out stereotypes and putting them in societal trashcans, I won’t smile the next time. I will start a conversation about how stereotypes can change lives, and how maybe we might have a few more brown lady scientists in ecology if we suspend judgment for just a moment.
To document interesting ideas about science and nature and reflect on the experience of being a scientist from the margins.