My STEM Story: Lessons in Denial

When my family moved to America from British Bermuda, I was still in elementary school, having completed first form, the equivalent of first grade, at the Bermuda High School (BHS) for Girls. Uniform and uniformed, I marched in step with the other girls, just as my mother had done through her entire schooling at BHS. Yes, I did stand out as the only Jewish girl in the school, or anywhere on the island. But generations of my family were well-known on the island, so the singularity was tolerable. Inserted into a New York City suburb, I was delighted to find that this particular oddity was completely irrelevant. Unfortunately, an ongoing confidence crisis took its place.

Longing to fit in, I embraced America's freedom of expression, jettisoned my BHS uniform, and begged my parents for every fashion fad I saw. Painfully, I came to understand that my classical education marked me far more than my clothes did. Even at age seven, my British accent, diction, spelling and vocabulary were unmistakable. Ridiculed at recess, misunderstood in class, and assaulted walking home, I went from rage to withdrawn, from arrogance to self pity. I felt alone and timid, marooned on an unforgiving, unrelenting Long Island, as I never was on the island of Bermuda. Yet, this was the '50s, and I didn't stand out as odd among the girls in my class for my lack of confidence or my weepy moments. It would be decades before women wrote about the self-assurance gender gap and published articles such as "The Confidence Gap" would be common place (The Atlantic, May 2014).

While I was confused about America's mix of freedom and conformity, I was oblivious to America's confusion about what to do with me. I was placed in second grade, but quickly put into a combination third and fourth grade which I considered another quirky Americanism. I learned decades later that my mother prevented my being put even further ahead so that I wouldn't be a total oddity. I eventually translated my British English into American, and found nothing odd about studying another foreign language, French, as a preteen. Nor did it seem unusual to study mathematical set theory in elementary school from a text book so experimental that it didn't yet have a cover. A budding intellect was insignificant compared to matching a pace of life so fast that putting a proper cover on a book was a bother.

I was unimpressed when a group of us junior high schoolers were sent to the high school to take science. Our advanced science cohort trudged up the hill together, so I thought it was no big deal. The years of advanced math felt like another college requirement gotten out of the way early. Surely, I was no more than an arithmetic plodder sitting next to Judy, my friend the mathematics genius. Unlike me, Judy didn't need a slide rule for math tests in those days before computers; she could do the math in her head. We both began careers in community organizing after college, but Judy eventually acquired a PhD in mathematics, and now teaches Applied Statistics in academia, having retired from the world of corporate STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math).

My graduate degrees are in religion and urban planning. I ran nonprofits, including Jewish Federations. I later became an award-winning, bestselling author, editor of the American Diversity Report, and cross-cultural consultant. When I started writing a series about women in STEM, Judy was an obvious interview choice. Touching base again was both a pleasure and a revelation.

When I asked Judy what it was like to be a math genius she laughs, "You should know." Given my clueless response, she reminds me that I sat next to her in all those math classes through all those years of high school. "So what?" Judy gently reminds me, "Only four girls went through those advanced math courses, and you and I were also in the advanced science classes."

Judy and I chose a math elective that included some matrix algebra and basic computer programming when it was first offered in 1966. Her mother, the math teacher, and my mother, the Hebrew teacher, were like-minded in seeing computers as the future. As usual, Judy excelled in the class, while I recall limping along. My inability to embrace a math whiz persona didn't seem odd as scholarly pursuits in my family centered on history, culture, and languages. The HS counselors never suggested focusing on STEM, although they did inform me that my IQ was higher Einstein's. I hid that fact, along with my acceptance into Harvard as long as possible because the reaction was usually hostility rather than admiration or congratulation. The response can be summed up as, "Funny, you don't look a genius," and from the Ivy-League bound males, "I guess you can go out with me now."

My mindset definitely needs adjustment. For many years, I've lectured women about valuing their accomplishments. Now, it's time to take my own advice. Maybe I shouldn't laugh off the memory of being dragged out of a beginning statistics class in graduate school and deposited in the advanced classroom. Maybe I should stop dismissing as pure chance that I ended up as a webmaster, website creator, and online writer/researcher/editor. Maybe it wasn't an aberration when I dis-assembled and repaired an office computer. Maybe it's time, or past time, for a self image do-over.

Are women in STEM particularly prone to this lack of confidence? Many STEM women appear semi-conscious about their choices as noted in earlier articles in this series. Their career paths often feel random, a matter of luck, or the lack thereof. The confidence deficit is is a popular explanation, but my experience compels me to offer another explanation, or at least a different wording. I see the phenomenon as protection against hostility, discrimination, and harsh, personal criticism. In short, it is not simply an issue of confidence, but of self survival, requiring great courage to confront.

Judy shares her career choices and is quite analytical about her field and the competition with male co-workers. She talks about getting her PhD at Colorado University, working in the university system, and sharing an office with another nontenured professor. They both received a corporate job offer, but her offer was only 59% of his. Judy says, "At the time, NOW (National Org of Women) had published that on average women were making 59% of what men made. What a coincidence! When I reported this coincidence to the recruiter (accompanied by a pie chart of course), we had a good laugh and he raised the offer." Doing the math for the recruiter meant an offer of more money and status, but she suspects that her compensation remained less than that of male peers with equal credentials.

"Women have to be better, but also more careful." Judy describes how women can get into trouble with supervisors for having too many ideas. The PhD may not have gotten her the money she deserved, but it did act like a coat of armor, there was less conflict, less questioning of her work when she was the only woman in the room. Nodding my head, I express empathy which prompts Judy to points out similar issues in my clashes with Harvard professors, civic leaders, and even male family members. Yes, the consequences of appearing threatening are broad and deep. Apparently, the survival strategies of avoidance and denial are virtually instinctual.

It's not surprising that many women steer away from STEM degrees or STEM careers. Or that many women who start STEM degrees drop out. Or that numbers for career women in technology industry are dismal. A good start in addressing the invisible STEM women might be to reject the explanation of lacking confidence. Rather, see their behavior as voting with their feet, intellect and talent. They are doing what is necessary, consciously or unconsciously, to preserve their personal integrity, their family, and their ability to fight another day. The confidence rationale stereotypes women as non-assertive, risk-shy, nurture-oriented personalities. That stereotype isn't often publicly embraced as it was when Microsoft's CEO suggested that women shouldn't ask for raises, but will receive recognition through good karma. Are STEM women truly surprised by this? No wonder young women think twice about a STEM career.

What personal contributions should we make to the promotion of Women in STEM? My own role to date has been to write about the issues and magnify the voices of these women. It's time for that role to change and to revitalize my STEM roots. As the new Research Coordinator to the College of Engineering and Computer Sciences at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, I'll weave my award-winning writing skills into the STEM world. I plan to follow the advice of Mahatma Gandhi and hope others will do the same, "Be the change that you wish to see in the world."