We can criticize it when it prowls in the distance, manifesting as colossal infanticide or rampant violence in some kingdom sundered from the First World. We can point to it and condemn it and pledge to catalyze change. We can file it under their problems until it slithers into our classrooms and our workplaces. We can brandish equality on paper and claim we’ve been cured, but sexism exists and it crawls around under our noses while we fail to acknowledge its influence if it doesn’t reach a certain potency.
At the budding age of sixteen, I would have incorrectly apprised that sexism is a problem, but not my problem. I have been a girl all my life. A succinct, decisive moment approximately nine months before my birth bestowed such a responsibility upon me. I prefer to believe that same moment spawned a latent feminist, and that a tenacious social consciousness lay dormant until another particular moment unlocked my potential. I had been treated differently because of my sex before this climactic incident, but failed to identify sexism as a factor or myself as a feminist. Perhaps we all have some threshold which, if reached, forces us to finally recognize an issue. My threshold happened to be less than a dozen words from a mathematics professor.
In 2012, I took calculus at a fairly large and well-known state university as a junior in high school. I had advanced through an accelerated program for mathematically-inclined students and enrolled in Calculus 141, which most university students with intended math, science, and engineering majors learned for a fundamental calculus background. Although I already saw my future in social science, the challenge intrigued me. Since I had already given four years of study to this math program, I decided to continue climbing the ladder.
Men outnumbered women approximately five to one in the classroom. I observed myself as a minority but saw no inferiority there. We all worked extraordinarily hard and showed immense dedication to earn our places in those gray swivel chairs.
One seemingly normal day, the professor mapped a problem on the blackboard. Something in the succession numbers perplexed me. When he inquired if anyone had any questions, I raised my hand and asked some question about how approached his answer. He looked me over, chuckled to himself, and responded, “You don’t need to know. You’re just a pretty girl.” Some piece of me collapsed. I hit my threshold and shook the rose-colored glasses off my implicit face. I was different—I was less valid—because of my sex. That moment, it hit me. Sometimes, I will not be taken seriously because I am a woman. I will face derogatory comments because I am a woman. I will be judged on my appearance rather than my intelligence or work ethic or character because I am a woman. This is not to say men cannot face similar discrimination, but in this situation, I was singled out because of my feminine anatomy.
What reason could I possibly have for attending a demanding calculus class other than to learn calculus? What information could my sex exempt me from knowing? To imply the information carries any less importance to females basically demonstrates the professor’s chauvinist ideology; women are less likely than men to succeed in mathematically-based fields. The answer to the problem will not affect me because I will not advance very far in mathematics anyway.
What is the difference academically between a “girl” and a “pretty girl?” Would an un-pretty girl depend on knowing the answer to a math question because her lack of sex appeal renders her less able to find a suitable husband to provide for her? Is a pretty girl less intelligent because physical attractiveness and intelligence are inversely related in women?
A severe (but thankfully narrowing) gender gap in math and science-based industries evidences differences in how men and women approach such fields. An excursion down any store’s toy aisle will show a schism in gender roles early on; domestic playthings, like dolls and fashion accessories, are marketed toward girls, while building activities, like Legos and science kits are shown with young boys on the boxes. Large retailers like Target and Walmart even offer “boys’ toys” and “girls’ toys” categories on their websites, and we hardly question designating certain interests to one sex or another.
Women struggle to break into male-dominated professions. According to a study by Dr. Brian L. Yoder of NASA, in the United States, only 18.4% of bachelor’s degrees in engineering in 2011 were awarded to women. Women hold 4.8% of Fortune 500 CEO positions. Currently, women make up less than 20% of the United States Congress, and we have never had a female president.
Nobody spoke out for me when the instructor reduced me to my sex. His comment sauntered out in the open, wreaking of misogyny, and all of us—that includes myself—sat in silence for a second. I swallowed the fragments of shredded aspirations in my throat and tried my best to move on to the next problem. I thought about the glass ceiling I’ll most likely reach one day and if I could calculate the exact force necessary to shatter it. Without knowing the density of the glass, I can’t solve the problem. Plug in the variables. Balance the equation.
We must acknowledge all factors to reach a fathomable solution. Sexism exists, and if we ignore sexism in calculus classes, it will persist in the workplace. Though some instances may seem brief or diluted in comparison to examples from past or far-off cultures, any display of sexism is significant and must be added to the problem.
We cannot tell a single girl she is not good enough because of her femininity. No matter someone’s sex, race, class, orientation, or appearance, he or she has every right to an honest education and the opportunity to pursue any career. I don’t know the exact solution, and I don’t think anyone does, but I know where to start. Take every example of sexism seriously. Celebrate women who gain academic, athletic, artistic, and social achievements at the same level as those we revere for physical attractiveness. Never, ever allow someone to render you incapable because of your sex. Nobody is just a pretty girl.