Over at Wandering Scientist, Cloud posted a lovely rant about efforts to make STEM more attractive to women. The idea that somehow science, technology, engineering, and math careers need to be made more pink for fragile females to enjoy, or that such careers should be more family-friendly because only women need that, is sexist in its own right. After recounting various absurd insults she’s lived through, Cloud notes that the way to make STEM more female-friendly is for a number of the men within it to stop being jerks (she uses more colorful language).
To which I say — yes! Thought STEM doesn’t have a lock on such behavior. Ask me sometime about journalism conferences featuring panels of men talking about great writers we should be reading who are, coincidentally, all men.
But anyway, her post got me thinking, because the issue of women going into STEM is a wee bit personal to me. I don’t feel guilt about much. Certainly not working, or ignoring emails I don’t want to answer. But I do occasionally feel a bit of STEM guilt.
I would have made a good scientist or mathematician. I was quite accelerated in math during school. I scored a perfect 800 on the math section of the SAT in 8th grade as part of the Midwest Talent Search. You don’t need a special award for the top-scoring girl in that case. I won our local MathCounts competition two years in a row. I took AP Chemistry and AP Biology simultaneously at the Indiana Academy and got a 5 on both exams. We were graded on a curve, so you had to be at least a standard deviation above the average in both classes at this selective school to get an A and I did that.
In other words, I was just the sort of girl people talk about encouraging to go into STEM fields. Or heck, social sciences. In college I took and loved economics. Many semesters of it. That would have been a reasonable choice too. And you know what? Tons of people did encourage me. Men, women, etc.
But there are two things going on. First, I have an older brother. He was and is much, much more into math than me. If I was winning local competitions, he was winning state and national ones. He was on the US Math Olympiad teams multiple years. The math department at Duke, where he went for undergrad, “retired” his math number (4/3!) after multiple years of Putnam competition prowess, and he earned his PhD in math at Princeton.
It’s not so much that the “math genius” slot in the family was already taken (there may be some element of that, though my little brother elected to go into computer science, which is highly mathematical). It’s this second complication: I could see how much he enjoyed math. It was what he wanted to do with his spare time, which is at least part of the reason he wound up excelling at it. When you spend lots of time on something, when you play around with it for fun, you get better and better at it, magnifying whatever natural inclinations you may have had.
I had natural inclinations, but I did not spend those same hours and hours exploring math. I liked it, and liked science, and liked the praise that came from great performance. But you know what I was doing with my spare time?
Writing stories. Lots and lots of stories. That’s what I did and do find fun.
The truth is, a life is lived in hours, and I believe in being happy in how you spend your hours. I love writing about science and math, and those of you who’ve read 168 Hours know that there are quite a few scientists profiled. That came out of a gig for Scientific American profiling such people. I like to be the writer who knows to change an editing error in a piece that had someone comparing the different infinities, smallest to largest. There is no largest infinity. I recognize that I am happier writing about people’s research than doing the research. I also enjoy writing about a variety of different things. Non-fiction. Fiction. That is what I want to spend my hours doing.
I do have some guilt over this sometimes. Partly it’s that many of the bloggers I enjoy reading are women in math, science, or social science (e.g. Wandering Scientist, Grumpy Rumblings, The SHU Box, Ana Begins, and others). I’m also spending less time right now writing about meaty non-fiction stuff that uses my brain than I should be, though that’s my fault. I’ve elected to throw myself into novel writing these last few months and it’s all-consuming. All the STEM talk also sometimes triggers feelings that writing isn’t serious, because anyone can theoretically do it, whereas STEM seems “hard.” And there’s this: have I let down the sisterhood by going into a field that has always had plenty of women in it, when I could have potentially helped break barriers in something that doesn’t?
But ultimately, we all have to live our own lives. STEM may need more women, but that doesn’t mean it needs me. Not because of any inherent flaws in it, or even the existence of sexist jerks. It is more because there are some things I love more, and I think I have a lot to offer the world doing what I do now, too.
So what do you think — should I feel guilty?