Choices

I have always argued that choices are not as simple as they first appear. No, this is not about abortion. Certainly not just abortion. I am pro-choice, as a life-stance, not having to do with abortion, but including abortion. But also there’s this article in Slate about biases that are hidden. It is particularly about the biases “against” women going into math and sciences, but I definitely think it has broader implications.

I’m fascinated by this because as a woman and someone who is pretty mathematical and scientific, but for some reason, and despite the support of my mother in sending me to earth science camp at age 11 and computer science camp at age 13, “when it came time to pick a profession, ….[found my heart was] not in science and engineering.” Despite having built my own website via HTML coding by the age of 13 (which, to be honest, doesn’t feel like that big of an accomplishment these days, but still), when I got to high school, something shifted for me. Obviously, this is a personal experience. It is extremely anecdotal, and only one piece of anecdotal datum at that. But it IS my experience. And after reading an article like the one in Slate, and just generally hearing how few women there are in the math and sciences, I can’t help but wonder what my experience would’ve been like as a guy. I do remember feeling that even though my mom supported me, when my brother was doing less complicated computer stuff when he was 17, family members aside from my mom saying things that indicated that he “was” a computer person. And I remember thinking, “Hey! I did shit WAY more complicated than that 2 years ago. And I’m younger. And no one identified ME as a computer person!” Now, I don’t remember why I thought that. And I can’t blame my extended family for leading me away from being into computers. But I just know that for some reason, people couldn’t see me as someone who was a computer person. And I think this is talking about something really similar. It wasn’t that people didn’t WANT me to be into computers, it was just that my brother was introverted and male, liked to play video games. I was social and outgoing, and enjoyed being with friends, talking about intellectual things, and was articulate. He fit a lot more closely into the mold of who is “into” computers.

What I think this article points out is that making a decision to do something, whether it be which career to choose, or where to go to college, or whether to go to college, involves so many more factors, and is more psychologically complicated, than we give credit for. We want to believe, especially in the United States, that people have equal opportunity. And maybe they do, in a sort of technical way. But opportunity is sort of shaded, in that you can only take advantage of the opportunities that you can actually see. In the Slate article, Vedantam describes a recent study. I’ll quote.

Stout, Dasgupta, and their colleagues wanted to find out why women’s outstanding performance on science and math tests in high school and college correlates so weakly with their eventual interest in pursuing careers in those fields. In high school and college, girls increasingly earn math and science grades equal to or better than the grades of their male peers. But when it comes to choosing a career in math or science, more men than women choose to walk through those open doors.

The psychologists asked female students studying biology, chemistry, and engineering to take a very tough math test. All the students were greeted by a senior math major who wore a T-shirt displaying Einstein’s E=mc2 equation. For some volunteers, the math major was male. For others, the math major was female. This tiny tweak made a difference: Women attempted more questions on the tough math test when they were greeted by a female math major rather than a male math major. On psychological tests that measured their unconscious attitudes toward math, the female students showed a stronger self-identification with math when the math major who had greeted them was female. When they were greeted by the male math major, women had significantly higher negative attitudes toward math.

(emphasis mine)

This sounds familiar, now, doesn’t it?? I don’t think I there were any women who were into making websites. And I do remember that even at the computer programming camp I went to, the female friend I remember having was only there because her brother was there, not because SHE was interested in computer programming.

Even more astounding, “when Stout and Dasgupta evaluated how much the students identified with mathematics, they found that women ended up with less confidence in their mathematical abilities when their teachers were men rather than women. This happened even when women outperformed men on actual tests of math performance.” This is crazy–as Vedantam points out, even when women were outperforming men, they were less confident if their teacher was male. The context in which we live severely influences our views of ourselves/identity and I’m guessing our willingness to work at something. I think this has profound implications not just regarding gender, but race and even probably class. It is an issue of identity, and being able to identify with something, with being a college graduate, or a mathematician or a computer scientist or a programmer. Choice is a funny thing–it isn’t something that happens in a vacuum, but rather with so many factors weighing in, often factors we have little or no awareness of.

I remember being aware of this phenomenon of women being interested in the sciences and then uninterested later on when I was 13. I remember thinking, “I won’t let that happen to me! I love science!” and then it happening anyway. I got interested in chorus, and then by the time I got to college I feared I was so far behind that I would be terrible in science, so I avoided it like the plague until I HAD to take biology. And then I loved it but felt like it was too late. I keep gravitating toward science and math-y things, and so I think I need to just embrace it, and fuck the stereotypes. But maybe we all need to work to help the people around us identify themselves in a different way, a more positive and useful way.

Psych-Out Sexism [Slate]