After publishing two books about women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), with two more on the way, I’m often asked, why do you write about them? People say, “write what you know,” but I disagree. But I’d rather say, “write what you’re passionate about.”
Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve loved math and science. After all, playing with numbers was fun! I think I read every math book our public library had to offer. And science? What’s not to like about tinkering and building and figuring out how things worked? Not only was science fun in and of itself, but science also used math. A double benefit. I couldn’t wait until I hit junior high and could take all those harder math and science courses. You know, the ones I heard my brother and sister complain about.
Real World Problems
I was especially looking forward to studying architectural drawing in ninth grade. Architects applied math to real world problems. Wanting to take this course is where I encountered my first challenge related to being a girl. In order to take architectural drawing, you first had to take mechanical drawing in eighth grade. Great. Sounded like a plan. I couldn’t wait to sit on a tall stool at one of those big drafting tables and work with all those drawing tools.
It’s at this point that I developed another passion—the desire for everyone to have an equal opportunity to become a mathematician or scientists. A few stories from my life will illustrate why this means so much to me.
Near the end of seventh grade, we filled out the class selection form for the next year. I made sure to write each letter carefully, just like a real architect would. I was on my way to the professional career of my dreams. Or so I thought.
The counselor returned the form to me with a note from the principal attached. It said I couldn’t sign up for mechanical drawing! Why not? Because I hadn’t taken the mechanical drawing intro course in seventh grade.
Now, from the outside, this seemed like a good reason. After all, he was correct. I hadn’t taken that first course. But there’s more to the story. In seventh grade, girls had to take overview courses in sewing, cooking, and art. Let’s just say that I didn’t excel in any of these subjects. In fact, I once had to pay a fine in cooking class, because I wrapped leftovers in “expensive” aluminum foil instead of the cheaper plastic wrap. It was clear to everyone that I should strike homemaker off my list of possible careers.
Proving them wrong
Boys, on the other hand, took the fun courses—wood shop, metalworking, and mechanical drawing. The problem is obvious. Talk about your basic Catch-22. I couldn’t take mechanical drawing in eighth grade without the intro course, and I hadn’t been allowed to take it in seventh grade, because I was a girl.
Luckily for me, I had parents who didn’t believe my education should be limited because of my gender. Faced with parents like mine, the principal quickly caved and let me take the class. Believe me, that was certainly easier than continuing to argue with my mother. Obviously, this chain of events led to my being the only girl in the mechanical drawing class. And of course, I was then the only girl in the architectural drawing class.
My interest in architecture waned shortly after that, but not so my love for mathematics. I knew that in high school, I could look forward to studying geometry! And trigonometry! And best of all, calculus! Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m a geek.
The high school held a meeting for parents and students to learn about what courses would be offered. During the question and answer period, my mother asked about the availability of higher-level math courses. The principal, a different one this time, asked her if she had a son or a daughter. When my mother answered, “a daughter,” he said, “Oh, you don’t need to worry, then. Since she’s a girl, she won’t be taking any advanced math classes.” I took an inordinate amount of pleasure in proving him wrong.
Now you may say, “Okay, that happened to you, Laurie, and that is unfortunate, but it was a long time ago.” True. But these types of challenges still exist for girls and other underrepresented minorities. They’re just more subtle.
College and beyond
Of course, there are no longer rules against girls taking mechanical drawing, and no principal will ever say, in public at least, that girls won’t continue on to harder math courses. Instead, a girl might be discouraged from doing so by being told, “Math is too hard” or “Wouldn’t you rather take…?” These micro-aggressions are easy to miss, especially if you’re not looking for them or not the intended target.
During my high school years, I had the opportunity to take college-level math courses through a program administered by the National Science Foundation. It seems they forgot to put up the sign that said, “No girls need apply,” so I did. It was here that I took my first programming course. Talk about love at first sight. Programming is all about solving puzzles, often math-related, and doing puzzles is a favorite hobby of mine.
When it came time to apply to college, I planned on majoring in math, and maybe taking a few computer courses in addition. My counselor never suggested that engineering might be a good choice for me. The idea of majoring in engineering, a field which uses applied math, never occurred to me, even though I had previously thought about architecture, another such field. Again, this is the subtle way that girls were, and often still are, steered away from the hard sciences.
In college, I decided to major in a science, not math. I chose biochemistry because it allowed me to apply my math skills to a variety of scientific disciplines. I also took computer science courses. The combination of my major and the programming courses, led me to my first job, as a scientific programmer in a pharmaceutical company. A few years later, wanting to learn more about the way computers can be used to solve problems, I returned to school and got a masters degree in information systems.
So back to the question—why do I write about women scientists and mathematicians? Yes, clearly I love these fields of study. But I’m equally passionate about showing all children, regardless of sex, race, physical or mental challenges, etc., can have a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). Reading picture books about strong, smart woman can go a long way towards achieving this goal.