A male engineering student wrote this painfully ingratiating letter to the editor claiming that because the women in his classes face obstacles he doesn’t, they are “unequal” to men (but in a way that implies women are better).
Of course, it’s getting a lot of attention and approval in the media. The author of a Huffington Post article discussing the letter—who doesn’t appear to be a woman in a hard science—confidently asserts in the title of her piece, “Male Engineering Student Perfectly Explains Why Female Classmates Aren’t His Equals.” However, as an actual woman in a hard science, I found Mr. Mauldin’s letter mostly divorced from reality.
Let’s take this point by point.
I did not, for example, grow up in a world that discouraged me from focusing on hard science.
When I think of girls in hard science, I think of the girls in my International Baccalaureate high school program, who comprised about half of the students in the physics and chemistry classes. My brother’s high school physics lab partner, who was probably the smartest student in the IB program, went on to get her PhD in astrophysics from Harvard. Nobody discouraged her. And I, as the not-smartest student in the program, went on to get my PhD in astrophysics from another top-ten department. Nobody discouraged me.
The truth is, girls are saturated in encouragement to try hard science. Every science scholarship and program that I’ve ever applied for as a student, or promoted to my students as a professor, has included the statement “Women and minorities are strongly encouraged to apply.” I received a scholarship from my alma mater without even applying just for being a woman in physics. I see this kind of stuff everywhere. To assess the extent of it, I typed “girls in stem programs” (STEM = science, technology, engineering, and math) and “girls in stem outreach” into Google, and found an astonishing number of institutions with programs meant to engage girls in STEM, including the White House, Girl Scouts, The Huffington Post, NASA, the Department of Energy, the YWCA, Verizon, and Intel. There are also countless programs through schools and universities, as well as non-profits devoted solely to promoting girls in STEM.
Update: The Wall Street Journal reports the following tech firms have pledged to hire girls from the program, Girls Who Code:
Adobe Systems Inc.
Akamai Technologies Inc.
Capital One Financial Corp.
Electronic Arts Inc.
General Electric Co.
Goldman Sachs Group Inc.
International Business Machines Corp.
JPMorgan Chase & Co.
Prudential Financial Inc.
Nor did I live in a society that told me not to get dirty, or said I was bossy for exhibiting leadership skills.
What does this have to do with hard science? I don’t know what point Mr. Mauldin’s trying to make with this, but you don’t need leadership skills to do well academically, nor do you need to do anything that will get you dirty. In fact, the opposite is true. Stereotypical science nerds are shy and awkward, and they don’t tend to be rugged and outdoorsy.
In grade school I never had to fear being rejected by my peers because of my interests.
Kids are jerks. The worst ones will try to outgroup you for any reason, no matter how petty. I remember being viciously mocked for having braces and for wearing an “I (heart) Def Leppard” pin on my jacket. But I don’t remember ever being rejected by my peers because of my interest in science. But maybe that’s because I didn’t care enough to notice. I had such passion for my interests, that nothing would have deterred me from them. Ask anyone who has a passion for what they do — they either didn’t care what others thought or they persevered through the fear of rejection. If you quit doing something because you feared being rejected, there’s a very good chance you simply didn’t have enough interest to do it in the first place.
Nevertheless, my experience isn’t everyone else’s experience. Mr. Mauldin’s claim is fundamentally dishonest, and if you’ve ever watched The Big Bang Theory, you know why.
A lot of the appeal of The Big Bang Theory is its authenticity and relatability. Leonard and Sheldon represent an extreme, but we can identify with them, because we’ve all experienced rejection by our peers for who we are. The difference between boys and girls, however, is that boys are far more likely to experience that rejection in the form of physical violence than girls are. What girl ever got an atomic wedgie for being a science nerd?
Of course, nothing beats Revenge of the Nerds for blowing the lid off the tortured world of the male high school nerd:
The shy and awkward boys I grew up with feared being rejected by their peers because of their interest in science. I was surprised to read that even someone like Will Smith feared it. Yes, that Will Smith. When he was a high school student in Philadelphia, he carried his school books home in a pizza box, because he didn’t want to be taunted by his peers for studying.
If you were a popular kid in school who never experienced rejection for an interest in science, then you are probably unaware of the geek underground that exists in most schools as a “safe space” for nerdy students to pursue their interests. This was perfectly captured in an episode of The Simpsons, when Bart found himself temporarily transformed into a nerd. Running for his life from bullies, we see Bart pulled into a hiding place by other nerds. They explain to him that this hiding place is a “refuge of the damned,” “a place where we can work on our extra-credit assignments without fear of reprisal.”
This isn’t fiction; these refuges exist. When I was in school, they were often the A/V clubs:
Just about everyone fears being rejected by their peers for something. It’s not predominantly a girl thing. Boys experience just as much if not more rejection for their interest in science.
I was not bombarded by images and slogans telling me that my true worth was in how I look…
He’s right about this. But it’s mostly other females who bombard girls with images and slogans telling them their true worth is in how they look. There’s an entire industry devoted to it, and it’s largely run and supported by women. Moreover, the largely unspoken secret of girl-world is that girls are brutally mean to each other; and when girls attack other girls, they don’t tell them they’re terrible at science, they tell them they’re fat and ugly.
… and that I should abstain from certain activities because I might be thought too masculine.
Where are the images and slogans telling girls they should abstain from science because they might be thought too masculine? I’ve never seen them. In fact, the sexy scientist in TV and movies is so common that it’s become a trope. Remember Dr. Jones, nuclear physicist, from The World Is Not Enough?
Girls, don’t try to be like her. You will be rejected for being too masculine.
Maybe these images and slogans telling women science is too masculine exist, but I’ve never seen anything like that, so they can’t be very common. In fact, from what I’ve seen, the opposite is true. We’re bombarded with images and slogans telling girls that they can (and should) do science. For example, I typed “girls in science” into a Google image search, and was bombarded with countless images of feminine girls happily doing science.
I was not overlooked by teachers who assumed that the reason I did not understand a tough math or science concept was, after all, because of my gender.
Perhaps this happens, but I’ve never experienced it, and neither did any of the other girls in my classes.
Also, women tend to miss that men are harder on each other than they are on women, but in different ways. For a woman, being ignored stings. For a man, being told you’re an idiot in front of the entire class stings. I’ve seen it happen. Some of my male professors related stories of the astonishingly harsh treatment they received from their professors when they were students, including public humiliation. The difference is, boys don’t take harsh treatment as a personal attack; they tend to accept it and use it as motivation to stick with it and improve.
I have had no difficulty whatsoever with a boys club mentality, and I will not face added scrutiny or remarks of my being the “diversity hire.” When I experience success the assumption of others will be that I earned it.
Mr. Mauldin’s not wrong about this. Nobody assumes a male in STEM was a “diversity hire,” because there are no policies to admit boys to a STEM program, advance them, and hire them, solely on the basis of being male.
If you don’t want women to face added scrutiny for being the “diversity hire,” then eliminate the diversity policies that admit and hire them on the basis of being female.
If you’re a man in STEM who wants to improve the lot of girls interested in hard science, don’t bother with letters like Mr. Mauldin’s. You may get some attention on social media, but after that blows over, it won’t have provided any measurable benefit to anyone.
Instead, explain to these girls what it is you love about science, and ask them if they feel the same way. Ask them how much time they spend thinking about and doing science. If it’s not as much as you, tell them they aren’t as interested as they think they are. In fact, girls are so saturated with pro-girls-in-STEM information that, in my experience, some of them may be feeling pressure to engage in science more than they actually want to, and are feeling bad as a result. Tell them it’s okay to pursue other fields of study, and that STEM isn’t the only worthwhile thing to do in life.
If, on the other hand, they love science as much as you do, they’ll find a way to succeed, just like you did and just like I did.