Last night I was discussing the feminist values that my (all-girls, Catholic) high school tried so hard to instill in its students with Kelly and I began to grow upset as a realization dawned on me.
You see, this school integrated awareness of sexism and feminism into all of its coursework—or, well, almost all of it. In English classes, it was impossible to make it through a semester without having to write a paper on the feminist themes of [insert classic novel/play here]. In the social studies department, we were always made aware of women in politics and history who overcame the sexist nature of their times, and there was always a special place given to women’s rights movements and suffrage movements. Even in the theology department, teachers always had a soft spot for women in the Bible, and it was not uncommon to discuss women’s evolving roles in the Church, both in the past and present. I heard the “Why women should/ shouldn’t be priests” argument too many times to count.
In all of these cases, we were shown examples of strong women who made huge progress socially or politically by challenging society’s boundaries through writing, business, or politics.
Yet we were never provided with examples of strong women who made radical change in the STEM fields. When I said this to Kelly, she said, “Well, yeah, but nobody is. Who is there? Um, Marie Curie?”
But there are so many more women BESIDES Marie Curie who go completely unmentioned. Consider Emmy Noether, who made huge advances in abstract algebra and theoretical physics, who Einstein labeled as the most influential woman in the history of mathematics, who was barred from teaching for pay until fellow mathematician David Hilbert duped the University of Gottigen into letting her lecture—but does anybody ever mention her? No!
Consider Sofia Kovalevskia, the first major Russian female mathematician, who pretended to get married solely so that she would have the required “permission” to pursue her studies in Germany. This woman also made contributions to classical mechanics just by studying the motion of a top for fun. But does anyone ever discuss this brilliant mind? Never.
Lise Meitner, the nuclear physicist, who literally had the Nobel Prize stolen from her by a coworker who claimed that he had discovered nuclear fission, is similarly silenced by history despite her years of struggle as a Jewish, female scientist working in Germany during WWII.
You see, when we think about role models in math and physics, we always consider male figures like Einstein, Tesla, Edison, and Feynman; even when we think about modern physicists, we never consider women like Lisa Randall, but instead we point to Stephen Hawking, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Brian Greene.
I understand that this is a widespread problem, but what upsets me is that my high school failed to provide these role models to me when I was a student there when they were capable of providing role models like Margaret Atwood or Zora Neal Hurston or any of the millions of women’s rights activists.
Even women in the math and physics department did not always tell their stories or provide encouragement to their students to pursue the hard sciences for a living. In fact, the sole physics teacher was a physics teacher because she realized that there was no place for a woman in engineering about halfway through her college career. Stories like this do not encourage women to pursue the sciences; instead, they scare them away.
I am not claiming that my school tried to draw women away from math and science; we actually had strong departments and many talented students despite the lack of interest some students showed in the STEM fields. But I am suggesting that in order to improve the gender imbalance in math, physics, and engineering, it is especially important for an all-girls’ school to provide just as many role models in these fields as in every other field, because subconscious pushes like these are what drove me and other women to pursue careers as scientists or engineers.