One of the greatest mysteries of my childhood is how my mother managed to get me to do two years’ worth of Lego League.
These days, I can barely motivate myself to get out of bed on Saturdays. I procrastinate doing things that I want to do. I am also stubborn as all fuck; if I don’t want to be someplace and there won’t be severe and inescapable consequences to my not being there, you will find me at home. Tempting as it is to label this a trait of my wayward adulthood, I do remember these characteristics in childhood; for example, at about the same time as LL, I was signed up for Spanish class, again by my mother. I avoided this unwanted extracurricular with the grand scheme of simply never going, and acting surprised when anyone thought to penalize me for not doing so. And then I continued to just not go.
Yet somehow, my mom got me to do not one but two years of an activity that I fucking hated. Spanish was merely boring, which was enough reason for eight-year-old me to call it quits; LL was actively the fucking worst. You can understand how I’m perplexed now.
The year was 1998ish. I remember the second year better than the first, but I remember both better than I want to. Lego League was in its infancy; it had just been introduced to our school, geared towards the Gifted and Talented programs, in which I was enrolled, as something of an after school club. Now, the purpose of Lego League is Baby’s First Computer Programming (and teamwork, school pride, yadda yadda), and you can imagine how important that is in the career world of today. The premise was this; the team was presented with a story challenge. You then built a Lego robot (on wheels), and programmed it with basic commands needed to complete that challenge. So, for example, in my second and final year of LL, the challenge was that a Lego volcano was about to erupt, and we had to send the Lego robot around to save the Lego villagers and the Lego scientist and whatever else. After months of getting our act together (or not, as the case may be), my team would compete with others from all around the Great State of Minnesota, and lose, both times. This competition was a whole day affair, and both times on a Saturday, meaning it took up precious weekend time. I lost a baby tooth at the first one and bled all over the goddamned place right when it was about time to go home, which seems weirdly fitting in retrospect.
Now, I was a melodramatic child. I realize that, given that you know me, now, in real life, these are not going to be the most surprising words you’ve ever read. From the point of sentience onwards, my life was always one crisis after another, and some of them were even half rooted in reality. My parents had long since learned to ignore me and my shenanigans, but I gather that my incredibly vocal misery over LL actually did present them with a challenge. I remember being plied with bribes, and rewards for not being a quitter after I made it through the first year, and that was not at all my parents’ usual modus operandi. I also remember thinking (and in my defense, I was at least not mean enough to ever say this out loud) that the rewards, a Lego League mug (which I still have!) and a trip to MOA were not at all worth the pain.
And then somehow, I found myself doing the next year too. How in the hell did that happen? What powers does my mother possess, and how have I forgotten them? I don’t even remember throwing a fit over finding out, even though I do remember spending the entire year in between bitching about how much I had hated Lego League, and being very surprised that I was going to be doing the dratted thing all over again.
So, while any questions over my mother’s persuasive and/or authoritative capabilities will remain unanswered, you might be wondering why I’ve brought any and all of this up, after so many years.
The answer is, because every other month or so, I’ll see an article along the lines of this.
While the specifics vary, the generalized idea is always the same: Men, young and old, dominate most (most) scientific fields. What is holding young women back from entering these sciences, and how do we encourage them to become the next great physicists, brain cancer researchers, geologists, etc? Studies seem to show that girls of elementary school age are every bit as interested in the sciences as boys are, so we can put aside gender essentialism and start the finger pointing. Is it that their teachers encourage girls more than boys? Is it their parents enforcing gender roles (as this advertisement seems to suggest)? And I find myself seeing these things and feeling… kind of weird.
Who are these girls who liked sciences as children, were encouraged by parents and teachers at all levels, and then still went into another field? Well, I’m one of them. And I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I can tell you that things went very wrong very early.
Allow me to make a case for you that I was one of those girls who, for lack of better words “should” have gone into a science field. Now, this is a blog entry, and therefore the most anecdotal and least scientific thing imaginable, but that in and of itself tells you a bit about what I became versus what I might have been.
First, the encouragement; while I have nothing to say about my public school teachers, positive or negative (the word ‘overworked’, comes to mind, and really, too overworked to take the time to encourage or discourage), by damn if my parents didn’t give this their all. My father teaches in the sciences at the University of Minnesota, and my mother has made a career working in engineering, after majoring in biology and chemistry in college. Our home was full of science books for kids explaining in child-friendly language how photosynthesis worked or what’s up with your useless appendix or how lightning means thunder. Early on, my mother decided– and was correct– that the science taught in public schools was inadequate at best. She made up for this lack by signing me up for every science-based summer camp program in the greater twin cities metropolitan area, so that I was essentially a full-time science student between the months of May and September. I learned about the rainforest from the decidedly-unrainforest-like Bell Museum on the U of M campus. I still know what weeds are edible from the Minneapolis Kids Explorer program. I saw a severed horse leg in a freezer at the So-You-Think-You-Want-To-Be-A-Veterinarian-Think-Again-You-Little-Shits program, again at the Bell Museum. And of course, during the school year there was Lego League.
Secondly, I actually did– and do– love the sciences. There was always quite the pull between my parents and myself between which sciences I was actually interested in (archaeology, marine biology) and which sciences had a snowball’s chance in hell of making any money (engineering, computer programming). Still, that was a lot closer to meeting them halfway than I did with Spanish class, or viola lessons. In the end, I took it all pretty far. I majored in Anthropology and History (ka-ching, amirite $$$), I studied Archaeology for a term abroad at the University of York, and I took the most advanced class of earth sciences that our college had to offer. And I went into a job that, while unrelated to science, had a great deal to do with numbers and math… in publishing.
Yeah, about that.
Here’s the thing about growing up as a young woman in America, from infancy to college; you’re going to have a lot of interests. I assume this is true of guys too, but for now I’m talking about girls. You’re going to be interested in ponies and Harry Potter and whatever dolls or TV shows are popular, I don’t even know. You’re going to have your fandoms, in the plural (yeah, I was thirteen once. Once). I was into dance, literature, history, art history and criticism, just to name a few. I tried my hand at about four different languages (but never Spanish). This was all in addition to science.
As for what kind of science student I was, well. I got decent grades. My freshman high school biology teacher never figured out what my name was. I don’t know how I passed Chemistry, given my propensity for sitting in the far back and conducting my own experiments with a friend and her lighter, most of which could be summed up with the question “Will [x beauty product] burn? Y/N” (We never got caught, so I never discovered if this was an expellable offense or just a suspension. In retrospect, this behavior may have been unwise). But then again, in my physics class, senior year of high school, when I missed the midterm test due to being out of school for an operation and was therefore averaging a D in the class by default, my teacher took the time to attach a letter to the grades being sent to my parents. He explained that I was an excellent student and the D was a fluke that he was certain would be back up to an A once I’d had an opportunity to make up the test. I loved physics, so much so that I didn’t fuck around in his class. It was just math. Easy-pie.
By that senior year of high school, we were already, unbelievably, supposed to be thinking about careers. And while I had no idea what I was going to do with myself for the rest of my life, I was already feeling deeply uneasy about a field in the sciences. My parents had done their best. My teachers had done their (overworked, overwhelmed, underpaid) best. And unfortunately, so had my peers.
When I look back at my eventful childhood in the sciences, the main thing I think about is being bullied. Not by my generalized classmates, for what I was interested in. Not by my fellow girls for being the nail that stuck out, though Lord knows I was. The bullying was done by singularly and completely by the other boys in whatever science program or class I happened to be in at the time.
I’m not going to go into any great lengths of description over the bullying itself. I assume that everyone or almost everyone who reads this has been bullied at some point or another and can therefore empathize. What I will say about bullying is that it can be incredibly effective in achieving its ends. Given the gender ratio, everyone was always perfectly aware that what could have been an all boys club was polluted by just a handful of girls, and this led to a sense of invasion; a sense of us vs. them that wasn’t exactly conducive to teamwork; and a sense of entitlement as to who should and who should not put their grubby little hands all over the ostensibly masculine toys.
The thing is, I never once programmed a single thing on a computer at LL. I’m not sure I was ever allowed close enough to so much as touch the computer. I never understood even the most basic beginning concepts of how to make our pet Lego robot move so much as an inch forward, and I think the boys of my team would have ripped the pigtails right out of my skull if I’d ever gotten close enough to be a threat.
The obvious question that this begs is, Where were the adults? The answer is, simply, Good question, where the fuck were the adults? I remember being reprimanded for being so ignorant as to these skills I was supposed to learn. I remember the entire thing being treated as an attitude problem on my part–and to be fair, who the fuck has a good attitude about of getting bullied and shunted off to the side and not allowed to touch the good toys for an hour after school every day? I remember being treated with blistering, hateful contempt, to my face, directly in the view of adults, who did nothing.
I should mention, by the way, that it wasn’t exactly like feminism hadn’t been invented in the late 1990s. While it wasn’t discussed at any great length at my school, and certainly, no one ever used that incendiary f-word (feminism, not fuck), it wasn’t exactly a foreign concept either. But the way in which gender equality was presented to girls at this time was some combination of “believe in yourself” and “girl power!” Consider the example of Take Your Daughter To Work Day (which became Take You Child To Work Day, which became Leave Your Shitty Kid In School Where They Belong Every Day). Gender inequality was frequently presented as an internal conflict, wherein the only thing holding girls back from becoming engineers, lawyers, doctors, presidents of the US, was themselves, and their own lack of self-esteem.
Now, luckily (or not), Lego League does have other aspects to its competition than just the Lego robots and the Lego scientists and everything else the word ‘Lego’ implies. There’s also an art segment, worth some comparatively insignificant amount of points, and as a matter of course, that is where the only other girl on the team and myself were assigned. This sucked, because no one wants to be the extra appendage at a competition that is emphatically and explicitly about something else, but we did it, because again, parents, not allowed to quit, etc. We made up a skit, and we made all the costumes and we were very creative and colorful. When we were finally at the competition, I noticed that our team of mostly boys and two girls was unusual because most teams were made up wholly and unapologetically of boys. Those teams that did have girls almost always featured the girls largely in the artistic capacity, and I bring this up, because…
I went and looked at some of the pictures on the promotional websites.
Now, by the time I was studying science in college, the design of sexism in the sciences had changed somewhat. No one was overt in their ‘no girlz alloud’ idiocy, and anyone who tried to physically push me off a computer was going to say goodbye to their fucking hands. I never had a male college student in a science class who was anything but civil to me, personally.
Sexism, as experienced between children, is infuriating in its brazenness; it’s easy to know you’re being discriminated against when someone explicitly tells you you’re shit at something because you’re a girl. More insidious is the gas-lighting nature of sexism as an adult, where you might constantly find yourself in the position of wondering, Is he treating me that way because I’m a woman, or is he just an asshole?
In my University of York archaeology program, I was one of a handful of Americans amongst a couple hundred Brits. On my first day at the dig site as a wee baby archaeologist, my immediate supervisor, upon discovering that I was American and apropos of nothing else, asked, “What’s up with Hugh Hefner? How do you get what he’s got?” In the moment, I confused Hugh Hefner with Howard Hughes, and, thinking of mason jars and wooden airplanes, asked him what he meant. “You know,” he said. “Eighty years old, living with all those babes.”
Aight. Okay. Great.
Basically the same person.
When I chose publishing over archaeology, or geology, or studying wolves in the wild, or any other science based career that might have once been open to me, it wasn’t some ephemeral feeling. I didn’t land there and wonder what had gone wrong. I chose a career that would have, according to every indication I’d had from childhood on, less daily sexism than a different career. I’m not saying that every profession in the sciences is populated entirely by misogynists– of course that’s not the case. I’m also not saying that my chosen field, publishing, is free of sexism, or that the sciences are more sexist than, say, investment banking. But even a little misogyny, here and there, is near unto unbearable. Even the more subtle forms of sexism, the mansplaining and the way young women are unlikely to be listened to, are bad signs for anyone trying to have a job, let alone a make a career.
The fact that my father consistently describes his female students as having better grades and a generally higher intelligence than their male counterparts, despite those male counterparts outnumbering them five to one, speaks to the difficulty of a career in the sciences for a woman. You have to be brilliant to earn enough respect for basic human dignity. I’m not brilliant. I’m some schmuck who has been known to confuse Hugh Hefner and Howard Hughes because that’s a lot of H’s, and I don’t want to find myself in a world where acting like a human will be evidence of my inherent inferiority.
There was a choice made, and it was the best choice for me. It may or may not have been the best choice for the field. It seems to have worked out especially well for publishing, which is an industry that’s made a great habit of choosing talent from a pool of young women of varied interests who are accustomed to going above and beyond of what’s asked of them.
If we began with the question, Why aren’t young women drawn to the sciences, and if the answer is, Because by the time they get to adulthood, they already have a sneaking suspicion of just how exhaustingly sexist such a career might be, then the solution is… well.
It’s neater to latch onto easier, smaller answers to this question. Girls are being discouraged by teachers, we say, which means that the pressure is on teachers to do a better job making girls like science. It’s an ephemeral objective, but one that I agree with, so long as that means putting the little shitheads in detention when they do and say obviously discriminatory things, rather than just shrugging and saying, “Boys will be boys.” But that goes beyond just the sciences.
The other idea, is that parents should encourage girls, to “believe in themselves”. Sure–I believed in myself straight into a publishing job. That was fucking hard, by the way. It never felt like taking the easier path; merely like choosing the one of my interests that offered fewer stupidity-induced headaches down the road. Remember what I said about girls having a variety of interests, as a matter of course? I’m not convinced that there are many girls who go through their childhoods going “volcanoes, volcanoes, volcanoes,” and then see one nature program featuring not a single female volcanologist, sigh, and decide to become a secretary instead. They’re choosing the best of an array of options.
If there’s any parting thought here, it has to be, please stop putting the emphasis on girls to end sexism while letting boys behave like free-range psychopaths. Throughout Lego League, there was always some disproving parent or teacher who was there to tell me off for not making the effort to learn computer programming, but was utterly hands off when it came to solving any of the disputes which actually kept me from learning computer programming.
So here it is, the problem that needs to be solved in order to keep young women from being dissuaded from the sciences; childhood sexism.
Good fucking luck.
ARTICHOKE, I will see you tomorrow,