I grew up believing I was bad at math. I knew I had a talent for words (I was dictating stories to my parents before I could comfortably and quickly write them down myself), and I assumed — as, I think, many of us do — that a proclivity for language is generally coupled with an equivalent ineptitude for numbers. In primary school, I passed everything with high grades, but I struggled with the math courses. I was often frustrated and confused; I had to ask frequent questions just to keep up (something I never had to do in English class). I could power my way through a task, but the conceptual underpinnings escaped me. I assumed that struggle meant I just wasn’t good at that kind of thing, that I was meant for more literary aims.I moved around a lot in high school, so I was often trying to line up a previous school’s curriculum with the new one. Frustrated guidance counselors would put me in one course, only to realize a day or two later that I was ahead or behind the rest of the students and needed to be in a different class. As a result, I found myself in math classes with kids a year (sometimes two) ahead of me; I knew more than they did, but I was shy and certain I didn’t belong.More than once, I would ask a question, and rather than explain a difficult concept, the teacher would suggest that I belonged in a lower-level class where I could catch up. Maybe they meant well, but the suggestion hurt. I was a good student! I was smart! I did not deserve to be held back. My own certainty that I would never be good at math went face to face with my innate competitiveness, and the latter won out. I was determined to prove them wrong.So for years I fought and kicked and threw my graphing calculator across the room (they made sturdy electronics those days). I hated every minute of it, but I passed every class. I made plans to go to a liberal arts college and pursue a degree in English, to be done with math forever.My second semester in college I signed up for a course called “practical physics.” I had a physical science requirement to fulfill, and this class promised to be easy and math-free. But the professor did something I remain suprememly grateful for: during each lecture, he would first talk about the principles of whichever law of physics we were discussing, then — in an offhand way — he’d quickly jot the underlying math onto the blackboard. He’d say, “You don’t need to know this part, but just in case you’re curious, here’s how it looks.” And there, on the blackboard, there was the math I’d struggled with in primary school — there it was, making sense. I approached this professor after class and asked a question about the equation he’d shown us. He went back to the blackboard and expanded on it, talked excitedly about how it related to the demonstration he’d made in class. We stood there as the class emptied and students scurried off to other things. I was enthralled; I could see something I’d fought with and hated suddenly show its true, beautiful self. Then he asked, “You’re really good at this; why are you in this class?”I’m not really a math person, I’m a writer, I started to say. But before I could mouth the words, I knew they were wrong. “I don't know,” I said. And for the first time in my life I realized that I wasn’t bad at math.I was fucking great at it.That semester, with encouragement and support from advisors in both departments, I declared not one but two majors: English and physics. I took some supremely challenging math classes over the following three years — classes where you knew each semester a certain number of kids were going to bail and change their major because they couldn’t get through them. But I walked into those rooms with an entirely different attitude than I’d had all those years before: I believed I could do it.I handily finished the degree requirements for both majors and graduated with honors. I don’t use math the same way anymore; differential calculus doesn't have much utility in my day-to-day life. But years after my college days ended, I would pick up another kind of book — on web design — and realize what that math did for me: It didn’t teach me a skill. It taught me a way of thinking. It taught me to critique and engage with the quantifiable world in the same way that my literature education taught me to unravel the cultural one. I’m certain my work — my life — is better for it.I don’t know if my youthful fear of math originated within me or was a response to external cues and gendered expectations. Likely, it was a combination of the two. But I do know that no one ever challenged that belief; until that moment in that classroom in the spring of my freshman year, no one ever said, “Hey, you’re good at this.” I suspect this is one of the fundamental differences between the experiences of boys and girls and may explain some of the gender gap, not only in the sciences (where girls lag behind) but also in the “softer” fields like education, which are overwhelmingly female. Consciously or otherwise, we steer young people into the fields in which they seem to fit, and that fit is determined (in part) by expectations about what boys and girls are good at.And girls almost certainly pick up on the many suggestions, both overt and subtle, that they don’t belong in the lab. This is one of the reasons we argue for things like diversity at conferences: because seeing a stage full of men sends the message that women don’t belong there. It doesn’t matter if the conference organizers believe that or not, or whether they intend for that message to come through. It’s there regardless.I don’t get angry when I see a conference lineup that’s overwhelmingly male; I feel sad. I think back to the girl I once was — who, despite all the evidence to the contrary, never believed she could do this, who asked questions and was dismissed, who never felt like she belonged — and I imagine how she would interpret that stage. And I worry it would reinforce her worst and most tightly-held fears.I’ve grown to love the web industry, love it like I never thought I could love a job or a field. And I don’t want even a single girl to look upon it and feel outcast. I want her to know she can be good at this, too.
25 Jan 2014