Three-dimensional women in a one-dimensional world

Posted by mouthyb | Posted in | Posted on 1:07 PM


Around me, in class, a few groans; the professor makes a joke about planes intersecting and infinite solutions on tests and shows us how to locate potential solutions when presented with the equations for three planes.

I could not be more excited. I want to turn to the row of men around me and say, "Don't you understand how fucking cool this is?" I'm 34 and I feel like I'm eleven and someone has just shown me how to crack a combination lock on the lockers which line the halls. I want to say, "Don't you understand? With this, I can go anywhere." It's the same feeling I got when I was allowed to play with computers.

There might have been choirs of angels, if I believed in them. My relationship with math and science is complicated.

Years ago, in my third grade math class, I discovered the nines pattern; digits which wrap themselves up through the first rotation of products. I raised my hand and asked the teacher why the rest of the products didn't wrap similarly. The year before, I had stopped another teacher to ask what numbers were, why they were treated like things when they so obviously weren't.

The teacher blinked, and her voice flattened. "That's nice, dear. Nines do repeat. Try not to interrupt."

I put my hand down and hunched down in the desk. I managed so frequently in class and generally in life to ask questions I thought were normal, or at least not super weird, and ran into that wall over and over. The reaction to asking what a number was eventually got me into a lot of trouble; my father ended up beating me over it and I alienated any number of teachers in the K-12 system.

In my case, as well as that wall, I occasionally ran into another wall.

In the ninth grade, I attended a religious school in west Texas. They were required by law, though seemed reluctant, to teach science. I had already learned anatomy from a junior high school teacher who had been a nurse before taking up teaching physical science, so when I was signed up for another round of physical science at the religious school, I assumed we would do a little A&P, a little dissection, a little geology, a little physics and a little chemistry, but slightly more in detail.

Instead, we got lectures on creation and a single dissection, all year. The dissection was of a cow's heart, and the guy teaching the class made us repeat after him: "Look at the wonders God made."

I ended up being a discipline problem; I occasionally walked out of his class without permission and paced the halls waiting for that class to finish. The teacher had a habit of answering my questions with, "You don't need to know that, honey, you're going to get married."

The math teacher from that school was run off by the end of her third month of teaching at that school by the students, faculty and curriculum, but not before the students had hidden her grade book and made her play hot and cold to find it, and the faculty had made fun of her, in public, for not being better able to control her class.

After all, she was a woman in the sciences.

I can't count how often I've heard or been told, even recently, by students and professors in the math and hard sciences, that women don't really do/understand/comprehend/belong in the math and sciences.

I suppose it goes without saying that I have some math anxiety. It's common to hear that if you don't smoothly enter the sciences, without anxiety or delays, that you don't belong in the STEM disciplines. That particular fallacy makes the entire process much more difficult than it should be, because it makes doing your homework a little shameful; according to rumor, you should just understand.

Coming back to these subjects as an adult has allowed me to do a few things:

1. Notice that other people are struggling, as well. There are male students who are considered quite bright who are struggling, female students struggling (though they get different kinds of help/obstacles), students of color struggling and immigrant students struggling. We all struggle because the STEM disciplines are essentially languages which require a (mostly) linear process of adoption, until you reach a certain point in fluency. No one expects to suddenly manifest another language (unless they're speaking in tongues, which should say something about that assumption.)

2. Know that no one can totally force me out. They won't, for instance, beat me like my father did for reading his college math textbooks and refusing to stop asking what a number is. (My father has views of what women are good for.) They can make me miserable by hazing me, refusing to answer my questions and treating me like I'm stupid, but they can't make me leave. Unfortunately, this means that if I have questions, the only people answering them sometimes are google and a few, precious friends whom I've made, other women in the sciences. It also means that my answers had better be very good. The same answer which gets the guy next to me partial credit gets me less or none, if I have the wrong teacher.

3. There are, in fact, women in the sciences. They exist, and even though there aren't many of them, necessarily, they are there. They work harder, often, than the guys around them, they tend in my experience to understand the concepts better (because it is very hard to get in when you get discouraged so extensively). When I look at the sciences, I can see people like me. If they exist in the STEM disciplines, so can I.

4. The STEM disciplines need me. It sounds egotistical, but my success in these disciplines creates a path for other women to follow. I can help other people find a way, and the need for people who can do math and experiment design is high. I can provide a skill set which is considered valuable, and as a woman, I can demonstrate to the sneering skeptics in my past and current life that women are fully capable of these tasks. More so than most, in my case, because of what I have persevered through in order to be in these classrooms.

5. Most importantly, in my case, I am in love. I would like to think that everyone has that moment when they encounter a discipline/idea/profession when they can sense the potential to do something spectacular. Every day in which I sit in that classroom and can do the problems, (mostly) understand the concepts and answer questions is a win and a pleasure. Every time I rotate a three-dimensional shape in my head, add planes or calculate volumes from observing the shapes which make up the shape I am considering, it is a total win.

My ass in that seat is a win over the whole fucking world. I sometimes feel like taking a victory lap of the class at the end of the lecture. I have not been reduced and made into a stick drawing of a woman, and even when I am treated with hostility and contempt by the people around me, I know I cannot be reduced to a point.

This is where I belong.

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