Monday, July 30, 2012

Math Isn't Just For Boys: Fighting The Stereotype

 Courtesy of Indiana University.

When I take a look around my office I see a lot of men, mostly older White men. There are also women, mostly administrative assistants, accountants, and marketing personnel, but few like me. I am an engineer, and I am young, female, Ivy League educated, and Hispanic. I took the same science and mathematics classes all my male peers took. I was given the same tests, the same homework assignments, and the same projects. Yet, every day I have to battle stereotypes of what some think women should be.

Engineering, and most science fields, have for long been male-dominated professions. Yet, in spite of traditional gender roles pigeonholing women to domestic duties, women haven't necessarily settled into domesticity without first making many great advances in the science fields. We cannot forget Merit-Ptah, an ancient Egyptian physician, and also the first woman to be known by name in the history of the field of Medicine. Or the ancient Greek philosopher Hypatia, also the first historically noted woman in Mathematics. These women were not given positions in Science to fill a status quo, they earned it, just like women today.

Stereotypes are part of my daily life. In high school I was discouraged by a school teacher to apply to Engineering school, because she claimed it was "harder than I was imagining it to be." She told me that I wanted to pursue a degree in Engineering because I of the money I would earn, but it was clear to her that I did not have a passion for it. Never mind that I outperformed all my classmates, including all my male peers, and that I was about to graduate at the top of my class. As a professional adult, I still face these misconceptions about women in science fields. I get my bosses' mail delivered to me every day because the delivery man, after four years, still thinks that I am a secretary. I politely remind him every day that I am in fact, also an engineer, like my boss, but it seems to fall on deaf ears. So I find myself not only doing my work, but also delivering mail. A week ago I was asked by a new employee which department belonged in, and the conversation went like this:

Me: "Hi, are you new to our office?"New Employee: "Yes, I work in the Marketing department. Do you work with Corporate?"Me: "No, I work in the Transportation and Infrastructure department."New Employee: "Are you an administrative assistant?"Me: "No, an Engineer."New Employee: "Oh, you're an Accountant."Me: "Noooo, an Engineer, a Civil Engineer!"New Employee: "Oh, wow! I would have never don't look like one."Me: "Umm...thanks?"

While I admit to becoming irritated, it was more disconcerting that this coworker was also a young woman like myself. She reacted in a way that was natural and all too common, because there really aren't enough women being positively represented in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). I quite enjoy shaking up perceived ideas of what society assumes I should be, as a woman, a woman of color, and a woman in a male-dominated field, but when will all this shock and awe over women in science fields end? Nonetheless, I love the work I do and the feeling of accomplishment I get when I finish a project. And contrary to 18th century views of the female brain, we have shown that when given the same curriculum as men, we can equally excel.

According to a research study done by the University of Washington, the main culprit for girls not becoming enthusiastic about careers in mathematics and science is gender-stereotyping. The study speaks of the widespread cultural belief in the "girls don't do math" stereotype. In the study, 247 school-age children (126 girls and 121 boys) were asked to sort four kinds of words: boy names, girl names, math words and reading words, into categories, with the use of an adapted keyboard on a laptop. The lead author of the study, Dario Cvencek, concluded that: "Not only do girls identify the stereotype that math is for boys, but they apply that to themselves. That's the concerning part. Girls are translating that to mean, 'Math is not for me.'"

While the study found that both genders equate mathematics with boys, it is unclear why this stereotype is so pronounced at such a young age, though there seems to be a connection with the way in which we speak to young children about mathematics. Dario Cvencek explains: "When a girl does poorly on a math test, often she's told, 'That's fine. You did your best.' When a boy does poorly, he is more likely to be told, 'You can do better. Try harder next time.'"

Stereotypes are hurtful, and I believe that stereotype threat, the notion that we experience anxiety in a situation where we have the potential to confirm a negative stereotype, is all too real. We cannot expect young girls to be interested in pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, if we continue to associate them with one gender. Stereotyping career choices is not in our best interest as we cannot achieve success if we believe that half of our population is not capable of contributing to the betterment of our society. I challenge every educator and parent to reevaluate the way they educate their children. Think about the toys we give them. Building blocks and other shape-sorting toys are equally entertaining for girls as they are for boys, and they help develop cognitive skills, something Barbie and Easy-Bake Ovens will never achieve. Teaching is powerful, and encouraging children to challenge themselves should not depend on the child's gender.

I am passionate about increasing the number of women represented in STEM fields, not merely because I believe we should be equally represented in all career fields, but because I know we can positively contribute to the advancement of our society. Having both sexes equally represented open the door for a more diverse range of ideas, which in turn can result in a more robust range of services and products. Additionally, having more women in STEM fields ensures that women's health and well-being become common practice, and not women's issues. Careers in STEM fields require high-level skills and earn higher wages, they are also always in high demand, and experts predicts an even stronger demand for professionals in STEM fields in the future. Our economy is in crisis and 60% of women are the breadwinners or co-breadwinners in their families. If we continue to believe that these high paying careers are only for men, we are not cashing in on the earning power of women. Ultimately, it is not about filling a status quo, it is about using our population, men and women, to the best of their abilities.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Street Harassment: Guilty By Default

Every day in my life, for as long as I can remember, I have had some men whistling, catcalling, and being disrespectful to me while I walk down the street. It does not happen occasionally, it does not happen once in a while, but every single day of my life. Every day! And I am not the only woman who experiences this. As a New Yorker with an attitude I like to believe that I am tough, that I can handle it, and that just ignoring the rude comments or saying a simple "fuck you" is enough; but this should not happen at all! Catcalls, groping, public masturbation, and stalking are not compliments, it is harassment. They make public places unfriendly and frightening to girls and women, and result in a culture that makes other forms of violence against women acceptable. 

Yesterday started off as a fantastic day. The weather was beautiful. I had lunch with a close friend. I was extra productive at work. I got home and my boyfriend had prepared dinner for me, and after dinner a dear friend, who went into labor, asked me to take her to the hospital and stay with her in the delivery room. I got to see her beautiful baby girl being born and share the joy of bringing a new person into this world. But that quickly changed when I walked outside the hospital to buy a bottle of water and find my boyfriend who was parking our car. As I waited in line by the newsstand I noticed every single man in the line was staring at me. Not a quick glance, but leering at me as if they have never seen a woman in their lives. I pretended not to notice while I paid for my bottled water, until the vendor himself made a comment on my appearance. I was noticeably uncomfortable because the entire line of men was still staring at me, but I played "nice girl" and forced a smile and a thank you.

But then I decided to stand in the corner and wait for my boyfriend, and it got worse, because apparently the worst thing an attractive young woman can do is stand in a corner, lest she be confused for a common prostitute, or accused of trying to get attention. Suddenly men driving by decided that I needed to be honked at. Many slowed down, rolled down the window and disrespectfully asked me "how much?" as if by simply standing on the sidewalk I was offering my body for sale. Others walking by would slow down and get so uncomfortably close to me that I felt the need to walk away. But apparently walking away is also not the answer, because the men formerly standing on the corner began to call out things such as "why are you running away baby?" and "don't leave, we're liking the view." I became so uncomfortable that I borrowed a strangers' cellphone, because I had left mine in the car, to call my boyfriend and tell him that I would wait for him inside a café.

Now, let me be clear, I am not new to street harassment. I, like many other women in New York and every other city in the world, am acutely aware that street harassment is part of our daily lives, but, to me at least, the harassment is usually in passing. I always continue walking and pay little attention to the catcalls because I find that men who act this way are not worth wasting my time. However, I was appalled at the number of men and women that simply kept walking and did not for one second call any of my aggressors on their disrespectful behavior. We must stand up to this kind of behavior in public places because if we do not, we send the message that this behavior is natural for men. Our men are not animals, they know that what they are doing is wrong and highly ineffective. The fact that street harassment is at it's worst when men are in a group leads me to believe that men use street harassment to affirm their masculinity to other men. And many lone harasses often learned to cat-call and wolf-whistle at women passing by from being in a group of young men. We live in a society where men are conditioned to believe that their masculinity is dependent on female approval, and that leads to a culture where men use women to validate their worth, even if by force.

In the essay "Masculinity as Homophobia," Michael Kimmel argues that men are shamed and humiliated by a  culture that raises men to feel a sense of inadequacy in terms of achieving masculinity, and a fear that they will be judged by this perceived inadequacy. Men's "fear of being perceived as gay, as not a real man[...] keeps men exaggerating all the traditional rules of masculinity, including sexual predation with women." Kimmel goes on to explain that while powerlessness is a valid feeling for men, it does not "accurately describe their condition" because "it is not true." Institutionalized sexism is so entrenched in our culture, that we negate to see male privilege. Male privilege is so normalized that it goes unconsidered, allowing men to feel that it is not a privilege at all. In order to validate male privilege, we raise boys to aggressively pursue a level of masculinity that leads to an even great disparity in gender equality.

I happen to believe that there are more good men than bad ones, but it took me years to feel that way. As a girl, I was raised to believe that "men will be men" and that predatory behavior was part of their natural masculinity. But being male does not give anyone the right to use their masculinity to shame, scare, and intimidate me. No one is entitled to feel threatened by simply standing on a sidewalk, and a beautiful woman is not an excuse to forget that women are not men's entertainment, unless she so chooses. Street harassment is threatening and uncomfortable, but it does not have to be. A genuine compliment is not harassment. Men can tell a woman in the street that he thinks she is attractive without belittling her. Flattery feels great, and we should all be free to tell another person that we think they are beautiful, but there is a fine line between a compliment and a verbal assault when directing a comment to a stranger. Men, I urge you to take a stand against street harassers. We need a world where girls do not grow up to fear men, and boys do not base their worth on others' approval of their masculinity.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Media, We're On To Your Sexist Bullshit!

Two weeks ago I interviewed Jennifer L. Pozner, media critic, lecturer and founder and executive director of Women In Media & News (WIMN) on the effect of sexism for women in politics for Let Your Voice Be Heard! Radio. Not only was Ms. Pozner overflowing with important information regarding the effect of media on women, but she showed us how it truly degrades, demeans and sexualize women, to the point where they become objects of desire, anything but viable candidates for political offices. The United States is 77th in the world in terms of women in legislative positions. Even Iraq and Afghanistan have more female participation in politics.

I finished the interview feeling informed, but hopeless. The media has a very tight grip on it's consumers, and the biggest consumers of media are by and large, women. In a sense, they own us. But how can we expect change if women hold only 3% of clout-positions in the mainstream media and  are only 18% of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors for the highest domestic grossing films?

Some don't understand the importance of having women accurately represented in politics and media. But when we have little girls thinking that being a princess is a viable career option, and newspapers more concerned with a female politician's attire and not her policies, we all suffer. Women are 52% of the Unites States population. We are not a minority, we are not an interest group, and we are most definitely not princesses waiting for prince charming.

The time to teach our young women that they must write their own stories is now. We can't expect to see changes in the way women are portrayed in the media until women write their own roles. What we see on television now is a caricature of what we truly are, and that portrayal is what young men see and confuse for real women. Inaccurate representation of women hurt both men and women. Young girls grow up trying to achieve an unattainable level of beauty and believing that women's issues revolve around makeup, hairdos, and boyfriends, while men grow up believing this is how women truly are.

According to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey, American teenagers spend 31 hours a week watching television, 17 hours a week listening to music, 3 hours a week watching movies, 4 hours a week reading magazines, and 10 hours a week on the internet. That means they have to process 10 hours and 45 minutes of media every single day. If their media consumption is saturated with inaccuracies, we cannot expect women to want to consider entering politics, or men to believe that women are their equal.

So what is to be done? First, acknowledge that depictions of women in media are inaccurate.  Be the protagonist of your own life and know that it is more real than any movie or TV show. When you see presenters and newscasters using sexist language to refer to female politicians, call out their bullshit, and for the love of whatever you believe in, do not fall for their trap. And look out for your own sexist behaviors, we do it more often that we think. Before you attack a candidate for her appearance or her emotional state, take a minute to consider all of the valid, non-sexist reasons to criticize her. This is not about conservatism or liberalism, it is about having a fair and accurate portrayal of women in media for our young girls to look up to.

Welcome to Womanisms

I've been mulling over having my own blog for over a year now, but I hesitated because it felt like the trendy thing to do, and I am not one to follow trends (or so I believe, because I do happen to love the neon color jeans that are so popular right now!) But I digress, I decided to have my own blog because I finally value my opinions. I was always the "go with the flow," "let's just all agree to disagree," kind of woman, but that doesn't get anyone anywhere. If I disagree it is because I have a reason to disagree, and facts to back that up. So, I welcome you all to Womanisms.