• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Connecting the Dots

Various ways women are treated.

April 27, 2014

I have been accused of obliqueness (or being "coy") because sometimes connections seem so obvious to me that I'm afraid of looking slow and clueless if I connect the dots. Occasionally I really do see things others have missed; probably more often people don't follow my brilliant leaps because they exist only in my own head. It's hard to know the difference in advance, though, so I am going to risk it and spell out something that I thought had been coming across in previous posts about rape culture on campus.

In case you haven't seen it, here is Neil deGrasse Tyson's elegant, off-the-cuff response to a question about the underrepresentation of women in the sciences. He discusses his own experience as an aspiring scientist of color, and speaks eloquently about the tenacity it takes to stay in the race when faced with discouragement at every turn.

There are few situations better calculated to discourage ambition, the desire to rise up and stick out, than living in a culture in which you are constantly reminded that you're a second-class citizen whose rights can be vaporized at will. When women, and vulnerable men, live in fear of assault, and when they are discouraged from pursuing justice and personal safety by the officials who are ostensibly there to help and protect them, it is not exactly an incentive to stand out in other ways. This is true not only of the direct victims, but of everyone who knows that it could easily happen to her or him. Like these students.

There is something else, too. I have absolutely no data to back this up, but as someone who was molested as a child, who grew up in fear of a raging alcoholic father (not my molester) and who always considered myself inept at math and science until discovering, in graduate school, that I could excel in related areas (logic, designing research studies), I have thought about this, and observed the career choices of friends and clients who have lived in terror of one sort or another, and I don't think it is an accident, or "genetic," that many tend to go into more creative and "softer" fields. It is partly acculturation, of course, and also partly, I think, escapism.

As a child, I lived in books and movies. They were a way to inhabit someone else's life, at least briefly. Math and science didn't offer the same invitation into an alternate existence; the focus was on exploring and manipulating concrete reality. (Friends tell me that delving into the life cycle of sea mammals, or intricate equations, offered them a similar feeling of escape, and I'm sure this is true. But at the lower levels, when the seeds of these life decisions are planted, we weren't performing complex operations. We were Learning About the World We Live In, and I didn't want to spend a lot of time in that particular world.)

I struggled with basic geometry in the lower grades. But my fifth grade teacher noticed that every time he framed a math question as a story problem ("Farmer Jones has a plot 11 yards wide by 22 yards long; he wants to plant 1/3 of it with alfalfa...") I perked up and figured out the answer. He helped me to frame regular problems as stories and resolve them that way, and I did all right in arithmetic that year. It didn't last, though. We moved on to increasingly abstract work, and I became more and more lost.

My ability to respond to story problems was chalked up to my "creativity" and also to immaturity; I didn't seem to have developed the capacity for abstract thought necessary to succeed at math. But I am convinced that leaping into Farmer Jones's life freed me to think. Farmer Jones became my friend for a few minutes; my friend was in trouble and I had the tools to help him out. I imagined him happily planting his alfalfa, grateful for my intervention.

I couldn't have verbalized this at the time, though. If I had, maybe somebody would have intervened, both socially and academically. Maybe I wouldn't have needed to escape into stories. Maybe I wouldn't have grown up feeling "dumb at math."

Maybe someone would have connected the dots.


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