Written by: Michelle M. Lu
The stereotype is prevalent in many conventional school systems: boys excel at math and science, while girls are better at the humanities. When I noticed boys in my third and fourth grade classes were pulled out of mainstream math classes for differentiated, more advanced support, I, as a female, attributed that to the fact that boys were usually just “smarter” in school. It was the type of polarity that no one explicitly spoke of but was constant in all academic environments, whether or not to be considered “true.”
Freshman year of high school was when this stereotype appeared to be crystallized, at least for me. For the first time in my eight years of formal education, I was given the opportunity to choose a science class I desired: physics or biology. Figuring that I could just get a physics course over with my first year of high school, I opted for the less popular option among my friends.
I honestly set no expectations for the class; after all, I wasn’t that interested in science, and the novelty of high school put other items at the forefront of my mind. (Who will I sit with at lunch, was a much more pressing issue than something like, What’s physics class going to be like?). But when I nonchalantly walked into the class on my first day, I was taken aback by the ratio of male to female students: I later determined that there were nineteen boys and only eight girls. In biology classes, on the other hand, the ratio was flipped.
I’m not going to lie--I was intimidated. When one of my first interactions with one of the guys included the line, “You shouldn’t be in this class,” a lot of doubts crossed my mind. Now, I’m not totally sure if his remark had to do with the fact that I’m a female, but I couldn’t help but linger on his words thinking that was the case. I didn’t hear him say that to anyone else.
The year dragged on, with me being assigned too many lab groups dominated by my male counterparts. Sometimes I felt my voice would not be heard; sometimes I felt discouraged from asking questions so I didn’t come off as the dumb girl who couldn’t comprehend physics. So I did my best--completed all the homework, studied thoroughly for tests, made efforts to meet one-on-one with my teacher--and ended up achieving some of the highest marks in the entire class. By the end of the year, I felt comfortable enough to ask questions in front of the whole class, and I even corrected some of the more dogmatic and vocal male students, when necessary, during labs.
Internally, then, I felt that I had proved that one boy wrong; I did belong in this class. I put in the work, and I was more than capable of understanding and executing difficult mathematical concepts. But grades aside, I found something more powerful in my experience in a class where I, as a woman, was blatantly in the minority.
When we would break off in groups to complete review worksheets, us eight girls always congregated in one corner of the classroom, working through problems, bouncing ideas off one another, laughing and forming relationships. As a matter of fact, I looked forward to the days where I could interact with my female peers, separating from the intimidation I felt from the class as a whole and genuinely enjoying the learning environment. We formed tight bonds, some of which I still hold and treasure today.
My physics teacher also offered us a science club opportunity, exclusively for women. Dubbed “G-Force,” the goal of the club was to empower women in exploring and pursuing areas of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). It was meant to challenge the stereotype that men dominate STEM fields. I joined the (very small) club towards the end of freshman year, feeling proud of the newfound identity and togetherness associated with the club members. We created Rube Goldberg machines, contrived ideas for apparatuses that could aid people with disabilities in everyday tasks, and even created a 3-D standing ring of Pringles. I later helped represent the club at an activities fair, helping to attract eighth grade girls who were looking for an intriguing, fun extracurricular activity to join when they reached high school.
In essence, choosing to take a physics class that year was one of the best decisions I have made in my high school career thus far. “Getting the physics class over with” came with a great deal of pride in my achievements and fostered new interests for me in terms of science. But, above all, I found that women, when together, can be really powerful. From now and in the future, we’re continually challenging expectations that might be intended to limit us, allowing us to strive for valuable goals and opportunities. With some perseverance, camaraderie, and efforts to find our voices, we can truly be innovative and impactful--in fields of science and beyond.