Representation matters

We all need to see girls and young women on the hero’s journey

I wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to major in biomedical engineering, then go to med school, then design artificial body parts.

That’s how I started college – as a biomedical engineer.

I finished as an English major.

I know this is not exactly failure – so sad that I got to go to college, much less finish, but I abandoned my dreams because I didn’t think I could do it.


One of my roommates got the same grades I did freshman year in chemistry, calculus, and physics. She now has a PhD in comp sci.

I could have done it.

But I didn’t think I could.

There was nobody to tell me I could.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I should have pulled myself up by my bootstraps and all that. I should have known – I should have persisted – there are plenty of women who conquered these obstacles – etc., etc., etc.

But I didn’t.

I was weak. I was ignorant. I was scared.

Whatever.


My parents were first-generation college students. My grandparents didn’t go past 8th grade. Not because they didn’t want to but because their families needed them to work.

My dad was the first (and only one) of his siblings to go to college. He went on the GI Bill after enlisting in the Coast Guard. After he finished college, he joined the air force, which is where he spent his career.

That is, my dad risked his life to go to college. The military is great in peacetime (what is that these days?) but when there’s a war, being shot at is part of your job description.

Notice it’s the not the children of the affluent joining the military.

My mom was the first of her siblings (not the last) to go to college. She went to the University of Wisconsin on a full academic scholarship, but dropped out to get married. It was hard, she said, to be the poor girl in the dorm. Her roommate had a closet full of new clothes that still had all the tags. My mom sewed her own clothes and didn’t even have, she said, a dime to buy coffee.

My mom does not exaggerate. She meant that she literally did not have an extra dime to get coffee with her friends.


My parents didn’t know about the SATs or how to apply for college. I had a really good counselor my junior year of high school when we lived in the Panama Canal Zone, but we moved that summer and my new counselor was super busy and didn’t have time for me.

Fortunately, I had already taken my SATs and had already identified the college I wanted to attend, but a little more guidance would have been nice, such as when the recruiter from Princeton came to my high school and urged me to apply. I didn’t bother because I knew there was no way my parents could pay for Princeton and I didn’t want to pay the application fee. That’s where a counselor telling me about financial aid and the waiving of application fees might have been useful.


I started school as an engineer, taking the basic calculus, chemistry, and physics as a freshman.

All my professors were male.

Most of the other students were male. At the time, the male-female ratio at my college was about two to one.

If there were career support activities just for women, I didn’t know about them.

(Now, there is fabulous support for women at Rice, which makes me happy.)

I was too scared to ask for help because I didn’t know that was a thing. I didn’t know I was allowed to do that. I didn’t know that’s what office hours were. I thought office hours were the hours that professors worked, which made me think that being a college professor was a super-sweet gig: You work only a few hours a day!

Then there was that D in freshman calculus.

But an A in physics.

Physics was logical.

Calculus was not.

But still – a D.

I had always been an A student. Then I got to college and everyone around me was also an A student and I was no longer the smartest person in the class, which was so, so weird, but then I accepted that I was not the smartest person in the world and it was liberating.

But having been the smartest person in high school meant I had never had to study or ask for help and I didn’t know how to do so and I didn’t think that people who got a D in calculus could be engineers or doctors and I didn’t ask anyone and nobody told me otherwise so I just – quit.


Yes, I know a better woman than I would have persisted. I know better women did, including my roommate, the one who is now a college professor.

What was the difference between the two of us? Why did she keep going despite the bad grades? Why did I give up at the first sign of trouble? What does she have that I didn’t?

I honestly don’t know, but I was very alone on my college journey and she was not. Her parents were both teachers and knew how to encourage her in ways that my parents simply did not, just because of their backgrounds.

And I didn’t see anyone who looked like me in the places I wanted to be. I didn’t see female professors. I didn’t see female doctors. I didn’t know about other female students failing and then overcoming their failures and succeeding in the end.


Maybe I could have done it if I had persisted. I don’t know. Maybe I am just not smart or persistent enough to have succeeded in my desired career. I will never know now.

But for the girls and young women behind us: We can help them. If you know a girl or a young woman who is struggling or who is trying to do something hard, tell her she can do it. Help her find resources, like the Women in Tech groups. Show her the stories of Katherine Johnson and the codebreakers in WWII and Katalin Karikó and Rosalind Franklin.

They can do it.

A World War II color poster depicting ‘Rosie the Riveter’ encourages American women to show their strength and go to work for the war effort by J. Howard Miller in circa 1940. (Photo courtesy National Archives/Getty Images)

11 thoughts on “Representation matters

  1. I literally decided to not drop plans of a comp sci major because in an intro course, 1. there was a female TA, and 2. the professor and other TAs treated her with respect (unlike the treatment female students received from male students in the course, by and large), so I logically reasoned that inside the department was different from outside the department (it turned out it was! with some dramatic exceptions, but still).

    Maybe I would have tried anyway? But I do remember going “this is not worth it” and then seeing the profs and TAs interact before/after class and thinking “okay, maybe it doesn’t have to be like this” and that had effects.

    Fundamentally, killing sexism would mean a greater diversity in personality types (and backgrounds, etc.) in the science-nerdy disciplines, in addition to reducing a lot of women’s trauma, and both those things will mean better science and better productivity. But less of a free-for-all fart club, which is of course the important aspect of culture to preserve… /s

    (oh, and I loved physics, but somehow managed to not know [?!!!] that there were any jobs at the other end aside from teaching, and I am not a happy camper with teaching groups of more than 3 or so. Therefore if I hadn’t gone into comp sci, I probably would have ended up doing English or journalism, which is fine, but augh.)

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    1. I don’t think I had any female professors in the sciences – thinking, thinking, thinking. Nope.

      I’m still fascinated by biomedical engineering. I loved Mimi Swartz’s book about the attempt to develop an artificial heart. (TLDR The heart that they think will work means the recipient doesn’t have a heartbeat! A pump is too hard to maintain – it needs to be a system that continuously pushes blood through the body!)

      And I just read “Bones” by Roy Meals – he talks about the cool things they are doing with bone replacement.

      The closest I get professionally, though, is I am sort of a technical writer at my job. I still wonder what might have been.

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  2. I always enjoy reading your writing and your thoughts on important issues – but this one in particular hit me where I live. I teach college majors’ biology at a small community college and we have a very diverse student body, including a *lot* of first generation college students. Representation is critical, for women and for students coming from underrepresented groups. Providing an educational experience that feels meaningful and levels the playing field (hands-on work and authentic research experiences where possible) helps because *no one* knows the answer even if they were a star at a fancy private school and “you” just scrapped by at an over-crowded public school. And teaching about/ talking about what a friend of mine referred to as the “unspoken curriculum” is so important too – what are office hours, what is an incomplete, how going over the syllabus can help a student navigate the course. There are a lot of ways we can fight to tear down the equity walls – but it does take intent, not just the same ol’ same ol’.

    So, I have a story for you. You wrote once in the past about the not knowing what office hours were, and I mentioned your story about this in a breakout room of some godawful admin meeting early last spring semester. Before the beginning of this semester, on one of the endless cheerful emails (have you heard the phrase “toxic positivity”?) from the deans of instruction, there was a suggestion that we refer to our office hours as “student hours” instead. I don’t know if this suggestion was because of you, but I want to think so – there were a few instructional muckedty-mucks in that breakout so I know that the “right” people may have heard about this “office hours” issue.

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      1. You are so so welcome! I’ve always been kind of an anxious person socially on questions like when it is okay to say things, joke about things, mention things … and I used to err on the side of caution and just stay silent if I was unsure. But – maybe about five years ago? – I just said “screw it”. People need to hear if they’ve done cool things, things that make a difference! There are so many things, big and little, that we do that affect people’s lives, and most of the time we never hear about those effects.

        So now I just try to throw (some of) my introversion to the wind, and spit it out :). Happy Saturday!

        Michelle

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  3. Wow! How do I limit my comment? Maybe I don’t!

    I entered college a generation before you did. My parents were also first generation college-goers – Dad finishing first in his class in engineering and Mother dropping out after one semester to go home and work to help support her family. It was expected that my younger brother and I would go to college and he would be an engineer, too. And, he is. I was not going to work. Few women planned to – a few nurses, teachers-to-be, and some folks who wanted to work in offices, as secretaries, of course. I majored in French – planning to get my MRS and be charming at cocktail parties.

    Certainly I was as smart as my brother, but I was a girl and no one anywhere thought I needed/wanted anything other than a liberal arts degree – because that was newly-middle class parents could provide. I discovered Business Administration my senior year and loved it, but even if I had found it years sooner, my college did NOT. ALLOW a female student to declare that major. Yes, you read that right. So eventually I went back and got an M.Ed., and later most of an MBA – a nd spent most of my career in some sort of HR.

    Today I am proud to say that my liberal arts alma mater has a strong B-School with many women majoring and getting Masters’ degrees there, and women are encouraged in all the sciences, as well as the liberal arts, but women still need plenty of support from their tribe.

    I spent a lot of time this past weekend at Homecoming, and at my old sorority house with the collegiates. They are an amazing bunch of bright, articulate women with big plans and I am sure that many of them will help rule the world in another 20-30 years, but they still ask the questions about working in the real world and what they can do, and will they be accepted? What we can do is encourage them and give them as many tools as possible, beginning with support.

    Good post, Goldie!

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    1. Thanks, Webb! Yeah – even my dad, who was equal opportunity when it came to teaching me how to maintain a car (he insisted I learn to do the basics before he would let me get my license) suggested that my career would be secondary to my future husband’s.

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  4. You and I started out at the same place, and I kept grinding it out for other reasons, but I still felt alone. Wouldn’t have made it w/o my study group (two other guys from Jones and me).
    Another big difference was lack of mentorship, and even the knowledge of how important that would be in my career. In my experience, women in engineering weren’t supportive (and sort of in law, too). It was competitive, a zero-sum game.
    When I met another female engineer who started at the same time and place I did, once we were introduced to each other and others were out of earshot, she said to me in a low growl, ‘stay out of my fucking way’

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    1. Robinne, it used to be (I hope it’s not like that anymore!) that women felt that there was one spot for women – and we were all competing for it. Nice how the patriarchy pits us against each other, right? It keeps us from uniting to fight against them.

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    2. That’s so sad.

      When I was in grad school, I was doing some of my field work at a research station that was under the decision-making control of a professor at a big university. Most of the other grad students that worked there were in her lab, or in her same department at that university, so they knew her. One summer, hanging out in the evening at the researcher housing, I mentioned that I had a 4 year old daughter. All her grad students got quiet for a minute – and then they said “Whatever you do, don’t let M. know you have a child”. It turned out she believed that women hoping for a career in academia had to make the same choice/sacrifice *she* had made – and that having a child, if you were a *woman* in science meant you weren’t serious and weren’t worth supporting with research resources.

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