– Laurie Wallmark – 

Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve loved math and science. After all, playing with numbers was fun! I think I read every math book our public library had to offer. And science? What’s not to like about tinkering and building and figuring out how things worked? Not only was science fun in and of itself, but science also used math. A double benefit. I couldn’t wait until I hit junior high and could take all those harder math and science courses. You know, the ones I heard my brother and sister complain about.

I was especially looking forward to studying architectural drawing because architects applied math to real world problems. Wanting to take this course is where I encountered my first challenge because I was a girl. In order to take architectural drawing, you first had to take mechanical drawing in eighth grade. Great! Sounded like a plan! Soon, I’d be sitting on a tall stool at one of those big drafting tables and working with all those drawing tools.

When it was time to fill out the class selection form near the end of seventh grade, I made sure to write each letter carefully just like a real architect would. I was on my way to the professional career of my dreams. Or so I thought. The counselor returned the form to me with a note from the principal attached. It said I couldn’t sign up for mechanical drawing! Why not? Well, the reason was that I hadn’t taken the mechanical drawing intro course in seventh grade.

Now from the outside, that seemed like a reasonable restriction. After all, he was correct. I hadn’t taken that first course. But there’s more to the story. In seventh grade, girls had to take overview courses in sewing, cooking, and art. Let’s just say that I didn’t excel in any of these subjects. In fact, I once had to pay a fine in cooking class because I wrapped leftovers in expensive aluminum foil instead of the cheaper plastic wrap. It was clear to everyone that I should strike homemaker off my list of possible careers. 

Laurie Wallmark

Boys on the other hand took courses in wood shop, metalworking, and mechanical drawing. I think you can see the problem here. Talk about your basic Catch-22. I couldn’t take mechanical drawing in eighth grade without the intro course and I hadn’t been allowed to take it in seventh grade because I was a girl!

Here’s where advocacy comes in. Luckily for me, I had parents who didn’t believe my education should be limited because of my gender. Faced with parents like mine the principal quickly caved and let me take the class. Believe me, that was certainly easier for him than continuing to argue with my mother. Obviously this chain of events led to my being the only girl in the mechanical drawing class, and soon, the only girl in the architectural drawing class.

My interest in architecture waned shortly after that, but not my love for mathematics. I knew that in high school I could look forward to studying geometry, trigonometry, and best of all, calculus! Okay, I’ll admit it. I was and still am a geek.

There was a meeting for parents and students to learn about the high school courses offered. During the question and answer period, my mother asked about the availability of higher-level math courses. The principal – a different one this time – asked her if she had a son or a daughter. When my mother answered, “a daughter,” he said, “Oh, you don’t need to worry then. Since she’s a girl, she won’t be taking any advanced math classes.”

Micro-aggressions are easy to miss, especially if you’re not looking for them or are not the intended target, but they definitely exist.

Unfortunately, in the 1970s, it was not unusual to hear statements like this from educators. But just because it was common, my mother did not let the principal get away with spreading such stereotypes. After the meeting, she told the principal she had been a math major and had probably taken many more advanced math classes than he had. I also took an inordinate amount of pleasure in showing the principal that this girl, would not only take, but excel, in the higher-level math classes.

Of course, there are no longer rules against girls taking mechanical drawing, and no principal will ever say, in public at least, that girls won’t continue on to harder math courses. Instead, a girl might be discouraged from doing so by being told, “math is too hard” or “wouldn’t you rather take…?” These micro-aggressions are easy to miss, especially if you’re not looking for them or are not the intended target, but they definitely exist.

When it came time to apply to college, I planned on majoring in math, and maybe taking a few computer courses in addition. My counselor never suggested that engineering might be a good choice for me. The idea of majoring in engineering – a field that uses applied math – never occurred to me even though I had previously thought about architecture. Again, this is the subtle way that girls were and often still are, steered away from the hard sciences.

In college, I decided to major in a science, not math. I chose biochemistry because it allowed me to apply my math skills to a variety of scientific disciplines. I also took computer science courses. The combination of my major and the programming courses led me to my first job as a scientific programmer at a pharmaceutical company. Wanting to learn more about the way computers can be used to solve problems, I returned to school and got a masters degree in information systems.

Many years later, I received an MFA in writing for children and young adults. I now am both a professor of computer science and an author of picture book biographies about women in STEM. My first two titles are about computer scientists, Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine and Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer. Through my books I hope to encourage children, especially girls, to enter STEM.

The most important advice I can give to young people who experience roadblocks based on other people’s expectations is to have a community of peers and mentors. Sharing your stories and being there for each other will help you stay strong. At first, it’s hard to speak out when you encounter prejudices. With practice, and with the help of your community, it gets easier.

Laurie Wallmark is an award winning children’s author. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter: @lauriewallmark. Visit her website at http://www.lauriewallmark.com/ | Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay | CC0 Creative Commons

Overcoming Stereotypes in Education
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