Math Class, 2015

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”—except this time, it’s for women.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

In elementary school, I realized that ingrained sexism exists in all our minds. This realization spawned from one of my earliest, most vivid memories. The nine-year-old me clambered to the front of a bright yellow classroom. Blue paper was pinned to the walls with thumbtacks. Glimmering hand-written essays dangled from each display board. And little fourth grade bodies scrambled to the front of the room, setting off a chorus of chairs scraping against the floor tiles. We all sat on the red rug, the kind that was soft and light and plush and the one I know I loved more than anything because I still remember the way the worn-out yarn passed through my clammy fingers whenever I took a seat and grasped it. My teacher smiled widely as she wrote down a math problem and smiled even wider when she asked around the room for solutions.

I remember no hands going up, and only a few minutes passing before she asked in a gentle voice, “Elicia, why don’t you answer it?”

The truth was I did know the answer. Unlike the confusion and hate that Precalculus brings, math back then was actually enjoyable, and I found contentment in the way that every problem consistently had an answer, unlike so many of my fourth grade questions that did not (Why is the moon that color? Why was the gym teacher so mean? Why were people scared of bugs?). I could have answered her question and I could have moved along.

But I didn’t because just days prior, I had been accused of cheating by the boy sitting next to me right after we got our math tests back. No matter how often the teacher said not to share grades, we still always did, and I remember his confidence crashed down as he received his test—a 92 compared to my 100.

“How’d you get a 100?” he asked. “You’re a girl.”

I don’t exactly blame him for his response—there has always been prejudice encoded in the fabric of our society. We stick gender labels on things like colors, clothes, and subjects in the most abnormal way, and with that, we begin to think that our gender limits what we can and can’t do. STEM schools like Bronx Science High School, in fact, often have a predominantly male student population—in 2017, 59 percent was male and 41 percent was female—while more liberal-arts-focused schools like Townsend Harris High School are predominantly female—in 2017, 70 percent was female and 30 percent was male. Even at Stuyvesant, where we pride ourselves on being fairly equal, there was still a 57 percent male to 43 percent female ratio in 2017.

These disparities are apparent in our media too, even if we may not always realize it. Take The Washington Post’s October 7, 2020 article: the headline is simply “2 women win Nobel Prize in chemistry for gene-editing method,” focusing on the fact that the winners were women and overlooking the fact that said two women (Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, by the way) set history. Their victory marked the first time a Nobel Prize in science was given to more than one woman and no men in a specific category.

Just as my classmate had done back in fourth grade, society as a whole frequently and unwittingly spreads this prejudice to others, creating a generation-wide stigma about what we may or may not do, how much credibility we should be given within a field, and the amount of trust we should hold in ourselves, all due to a random draw of the chromosomes in our bodies. It has become engraved in our minds. It is unintentional, yet entirely real.

As I previously mentioned, Stuyvesant promotes equality between male and female students. I see this more and more everyday as I join coalitions like Girls in Science and Girls Who Code and find myself actively enjoying them. As someone who has internalized the fear of being judged for my interests in STEM, these groups have largely contributed to my growth and realization that the STEM world isn’t only riddled with prejudice. Meeting and seeing incredibly intelligent female scientists and engineers in the making have been unique experiences, and I’m motivated to do better as I pursue my own dream of becoming an anesthesiologist. Despite this inspiration, I can’t help but wonder: how efficient are these coalitions in fighting sexism?

Sexism, after all, is silent and systematic. It’s so deeply rooted that even groups meant to encourage equality in STEM can be turned into a “if women are so strong, then why do they need their own groups” sort of argument. In relation to the origin of sexism in STEM, studies of sexism suggest that countless factors contribute to the ongoing cycle, though the largest and most prominent factor remains that girls begin to lose self-confidence as they believe men naturally possess more intelligence in the STEM fields. In addition to influence from parents and teachers with internalized sexism and differing levels of encouragement, it’s simply not possible to reverse this disparity with mere laws and policies. It grows quietly. It’s a cycle.

But the best thing we can do is interrupt that cycle: where education occurs, change must follow. Sweden is currently leading the way. There, interjection begins at the preschool level, where Swedish teachers have recognized the misogynistic patterns that begin at such a young age. They have begun to separate boys and girls in classrooms, encouraging them to pursue the stereotypes of the other gender: while girls are encouraged to say no and protest, boys are taught to dance and massage each other’s feet. Through beginning this re-education at such a young age, I believe that the loss of self-confidence that seems to start the cycle of sexism in STEM can be limited, if not eradicated. The mindset that you develop in your youth largely contributes to the mindset you maintain in the future. In elementary and middle schools, we can push to continue this foundation of equality. In high schools, we can look into the curriculum, encouraging education surrounding the influence of women in all subjects.

To start, we must bring up the achievements of women in STEM. Every high-schooler has heard of Watson and Crick, two men who famously won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of the double helix—yet Rosalind Franklin, a scientist who made the discovery possible and had her work stolen, has only become a popular name in the past few years. Lise Meiter, who discovered how to split atoms, was completely discredited by her male lab partner. Esther Lederberg and her husband were scientists who worked together, making significant advances in microbiology, yet when Esther invented the now commonly-used laboratory technique called replica plating, only her husband was awarded a Nobel Prize. Esther wasn’t even nominated—nor was she mentioned in her husband’s acceptance speech. How many of the aforementioned names did you recognize? I only knew of Rosalind Franklin prior to my own research. When we finally start seeing their names regularly is when we would have succeeded in educating ourselves.

As a sophomore, I’ve only been at Stuyvesant a short while, but I can already tell it’s a different atmosphere from the largely male, low-ranking elementary school I attended. As Stuyvesant students, we pride ourselves on meritocracy, and meritocracy doesn’t place limits due to gender. I’ve set my eyes on becoming an anesthesiologist, and despite being unsure due to my own childhood insecurity (did you know only 23 percent of anesthesiologists were female in 2011?), I’m certain now. Coming into Stuyvesant has been largely influential in helping me recognize that a percentage is only a number that can change as our generation progresses. Of course, our one school doesn’t reflect everything. There’s still so much to be done in the work field and in schools less diverse and less progressive than ours, and, to be blunt, there will never be a perfect solution to sexism. But schools like ours are the first signs of our generational step forward and that one step can produce results. Like Neil Armstrong said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Except this time, it’s for women.