Hello everyone, my name is Emily and I am bad at math. Sometimes this makes me feel like a failure as a feminist.
See, I’m a nerd at heart (surprise!), and a lot of my favourite websites and blogs accrete STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) news alongside covert footage of the new Millenium Falcon. I certainly don’t mind — after all, I follow NASA on Facebook. I really am truly interested in most of the science news that comes across my dash, but it’s like being a child with a crush on one of her parent’s friends: I think it’s so incredibly cool and it thinks I’m kind of silly. Left-brainers range from befuddled to downright arrogant when dealing with us right-brainers.
At any rate I see a lot of news about how important it is to get more girls into STEM fields, and it leaves me feeling a little guilty. I would consider myself both a nerd and a feminist, and yet my brain seems to be built like a sieve with number-shaped holes. Seriously, when my husband was doing his engineering degree he would sometimes vent about the concepts he was learning and even when I was trying very hard to focus and follow what he was saying, my brain would go fuzzy and I’d entirely lose track of his words. Numbers just make my brain congeal a little.
I’m not exaggerating. I can do the same problem four times and get four different answers. The numbers swim and change places, and working through problems feels like pushing something heavy through something thick, only to find out you were moving the wrong heavy object once the job is done. STEM types laud math for being so reliable and utterly logical, but it’s always felt rather arcane to me.
To hear my mom tell it, my hatred of math started in kindergarten when another child was mean to me about not learning something quickly enough. According to her, it’s a mental block, and the problem is all in my head. The problem is certainly in my head (no one I know uses their gall bladder for long division) but accepting that leaves the problem unaffected. Where it started really doesn’t seem to matter: at the end of the day, it’s still there.
Oh, I’ve got the basics alright. I can add and subtract, make change, tell time, and do some basic geometry. I can function as an adult. But any deeper than that and I start to flounder.
Maybe it’s a long-undiagnosed learning disability. I would be lying if I said that the symptoms of dyscalculia didn’t sound frighteningly familiar. Maybe, as every single teacher I have ever had suggested, I just needed to work harder and apply myself. Maybe all those hours of homework, all those after school sessions, all those tutors, all those private programs, all those tears of frustration weren’t enough. Or maybe it’s just outside of my learning style. Who knows?
Don’t get me wrong, I understand its value and I really am totally pro getting girls into STEM. Just… other girls. And enough of them so I don’t feel like I’m not measuring up.
I spent so many years trying so hard and not getting ahead. The thing about continually failing is that you stop equating effort with success: after all, if nothing you do works, why bother? It didn’t have anything to do with “attitude,” it was just logic. In grade 11 I dug in my heels. Math 12 was optional, and I didn’t care any more. If not taking it meant I was going to be a bum the rest of my life, so be it. No amount of “it’ll limit your options” speeches were going to change my mind. I was done.
I assumed I was just stupid. After all, the smart kids were all breezing through math. Their grades in art or history didn’t seem to matter. Those are “soft options” after all. We tend to put a hierarchy of intelligence on skills, with math and science at the top, reading and writing somewhere in the middle, and art and music on the bottom. I knew where I fell on this hierarchy, and it was definitely in the “less-smart” range. I could win every “subject excellence” award in Drama or English, but I knew it didn’t count against every blank math “mad minute” I’d ever turned in.
There’s no debate: STEM fields are rife with sexism, and women are frequently made to feel unwelcome. Plenty of talented girls go other directions for very unfortunate reasons. And those reasons are the real problem: gender disparity is just a symptom. The experiences of real human beings has to stay in focus. I might feel like a bad feminist for being bad at math, but I know that’s silly. I’m not the real problem: that honour goes to institutional sexism. Maybe once that’s dealt with, people like me won’t feel like we’re failing because there’ll be enough others succeeding around us.
Because that’s the thing: gender disparity isn’t fair to anyone. We hold minority groups to a higher standard solely due to the fact that they are more visible as a result of being a minority. It’s easy for me to feel like part of the problem simply because I’m not part of the solution, and it sucks because the solution for my problem is not something I can participate in. I hate not being able to help myself, but I need this push to get more women into STEM to provide a kind of protective coloration for myself and others like me. One of the benefits of improved equity is the pressure comes off, and we all get space to just be.
EMILY was born and raised in British Columbia. She currently works full time providing Design and Marketing services for an Engineering firm while drawing, painting and writing instead of sleeping. Follow her on Twitter for opinions on art, design, and her ongoing Star Trek TNG rewatch.