My senior year of high school, I had the honor of going to the National Competition for Chemistry Olympiad by scoring the highest in my school and fourth in the state of Wisconsin. Unfortunately, the day of the exam coincided with prom.
Wanting to have it all, I decided that I’d prepare for prom as much as I could before the exam so afterwards I’d only have to change into a dress.
I regretted that decision as soon as I walked into the exam room.
I was the only girl.
Call it naiveté, but I thought there’d be at least one other girl who had finished in the top of my state. I could feel my competition’s eyes, taking in the hair and the makeup, and deeming me not a threat. Later, when we talked, it turned out I was the only one headed to an Ivy League university.
As a woman in the United States, there are certain realities I have to face, like lower wages and lowered expectations. As a woman in engineering, there are different struggles. Today, about 19 percent of bachelor’s degrees in engineering are awarded to women. It should come as no surprise that I often find myself in a room full of men, having not only to represent myself but also my gender. While a less common occurrence at my college, Columbia University — where two out of every five engineering students are female — high school was a different story.
Some of the struggles are internal. These are the hardest to identify because they are not obvious; they are insidious and subconscious, affecting the way women think about themselves and their performance. Perhaps best shown in studies by psychologist Carol Dweck in the 1980s, girls consider intelligence intrinsic, while boys consider it adaptable. While this may not seem grossly significant, it has substantial influence over the future of girls.
In one study, boys and girls in fifth grade were given new and complex concepts to learn. Dweck found that girls gave up more quickly as the material became harder. In fact, the smarter the girl, the more quickly she’d give up. On the other hand, the smarter boys worked harder on the difficult concepts rather than stop. This also highlights the ways that girls and boys tend to view difficulty. Boys see it as conquerable, while girls doubt themselves and believe they cannot do it.
As schoolwork gets harder and more complex, which subjects like math and science inevitably do, girls are more likely to put down their pencils and give up, even if they are more intelligent than their male classmates. This begs the question, why? Why do girls believe intelligence is innate? Why do boys not?
There is no concrete answer, but social psychologist Heidi Halvorson believes it has to do with the feedback we get from our family and mentors. Girls, who generally develop self-control earlier than boys, are often told how smart they are or how nice they are, as if their “goodness” is quantifiable and definite. Boys, on the other hand — who tend to have greater difficulty following instructions at a young age — are always told to sit down and pay attention, which is feedback implying that effort is related to results. When children struggle to understand new material, boys think they need to work harder, whereas girls believe they aren’t smart enough.
The doubt that girls have at these crucial moments can be reinforced by teachers or parents with unconscious biases. A 2015 study of Israeli students, by Victor Lavy and Edith Sand, identifies such instances in middle and high school. The researchers compared the grades that math teachers gave boys and girls with these students’ scores on a national math exam. Typically, boys’ talents were over-assessed, while girls’ achievements were under-assessed. The favoritism that boys received led them to excel, and to take more math and science classes in the future. On the other hand, girls gradually stopped taking math and science classes.
Reading these studies led me to reflect on my own experiences in school. As a girl who took countless classes in math and science, I didn’t feel a lot of bias from my teachers. In fact, my science teacher all throughout middle school helped me whenever I struggled with new concepts in chemistry, biology and physics. In high school, when I considered not taking an accelerated math track, my teacher told me he thought that’d be a mistake. I listened to him and ended up in my school’s highest math class a few years later.
I didn’t have to overcome much bias from my parents, teachers or friends, and I was not born with intrinsic knowledge of math or science. My success has a much simpler explanation: Whenever I doubted my abilities, I had teachers and parents who supported me. Things could have been very different if my parents had told me I should focus on English, or if my teacher told me to take the easier math track.
That there aren’t more women in engineering reveals how unsupported many are when it comes to math and science. I should not be an exception — I should be the norm.
Madison Cox just completed her first year of studies at the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, Columbia University, where she is majoring in biomedical engineering. Cox is also treasurer of the Columbia student chapter of Engineers Without Borders.