I grew up on the cusp between Generations X and Y, at a time when young girls like me played with pink toys and mimicked motherhood but were also told that we could be anything we wanted. In high school, I was in the top 10 percent of my class. This was a big deal for me, as the first in my lower middle class family with college as an option. As a senior, I took college-level courses in physics, biology and pre-calculus. I struggled more than many of my naturally-talented classmates, but the extra studying paid off, and it never bothered me. What did was being told by a teacher that I was bad at math because I was a girl. I remember standing at the blackboard in front of the class, unable to solve an equation, while my teacher mocked me. This happened often.
It was my first run-in with girls’ so-called “math limitation,” and it determined the course of my college and post-grad careers. English and writing teachers encouraged me to pursue a liberal arts degree, winning out over the lone science teacher who believed in my ability to follow the math and science path. Now, I write essays about writing lines of code instead of writing those lines of code myself.
Gender stereotyping in math and science — namely, the notion that math is for boys — starts as early as second grade. Encouragingly, there is a movement afoot to correct that. Verizon recently collaborated on a cautionary television advertisement with Girls Who Code, an organization that promotes girls’ interest in computer science. The ad shows parents repeatedly telling their daughter that she is pretty, while discouraging her from the traditionally male interests she seems keen to pursue, like fixing things with a power tool and suspending a model solar system from her bedroom ceiling.
In June, Google announced its financial commitment to its Made With Code initiative, which aims to interest girls in science and tech at an early age. Another group, Goldie Blox, seeks to recruit an even younger demographic of female engineers. I applaud the spirit but not the approach of both organizations, which rely on gender stereotyping to hook girls. “You code it. A 3D printer prints it. You flaunt it,” the Made With Code website’s “Code A Bracelet” feature reads. It might as well say, “Check out this bracelet! If you knew how to code, you could make one and be pretty too!”
Wouldn’t it be better to cultivate an affinity for math and science in our girls and leave the pretty in pink message out of it? I believe that we should offer our science-minded girls tech-savvy guidance counselors and career mentors at the middle- and high-school levels so that their interest in and aptitude for these disciplines grow. We need to rid our schools of teachers who dredge up outmoded and offensive notions about what girls can and cannot do and make room for educators who get that girls and math do mix. And while the premium placed on being pretty and popular might never go away, perhaps the math whizzes can get a privileged place in our schools, too.
Girls have always been game to rise to the occasion. Genevieve Bell of Intel Labs and Marissa Mayer of Yahoo are just a few of the women who have ascended the ranks in male-dominated fields. They, like the female innovators and leaders I hope will come after them, are smart, self-assured and capable of facing down some of the toughest scientific and technological challenges of our time. And they don’t need baubles or pink things to prove it.