Proud To Be A Nerd? Shhh, Don’t Tell Anyone.
I am a nerd. I am the daughter of nerds. I am married to a nerd. A nerd is one who probes an esoteric subject deeply and values quiet alone time to pursue intellectual endeavors over social, athletic, or more popular mainstream pursuits. The derogatory interpretation of a nerd is someone who is on the fringe, socially, and who is athletically inept. With the rise of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and The Big Bang Theory, nerds everywhere have come out of the woodwork proclaiming their virtues with pride.
Along with the upward trending of nerdiness, there has been a significant increase in girls excelling at math and science. Natalie Angier reports that girls now make up an equal percentage of applicants to a math/science magnet school and nearly an equal percentage of girls get accepted into the program. This is fantastic progress! BUT, a much lower percentage of the accepted girls actually attend than of the accepted boys – thus perpetuating the disparity between girls and boys who pursue an academic program and later a professional career in math and science.
Angier and many others wonder why, despite their clear aptitude for and interest in math, more girls don’t continue along the math and science path. Really, this is a mystery? I know where the girls are. They are socializing. (As they should be!) When the social pressures kick in to high gear in the teen years, the girls are busy sorting through how to be young women. They want to fit in. While they remain smart and ambitious, their interests expand. Girls tend to be equally good at “verbal” subjects as they are at math and science and frequently gravitate toward paths that overtly help people, like healthcare and education.
To fit in, there is much more encouragement for girls and pressure on girls to be attractive and social. It takes a lot of time and money to learn how to do this well. You have to be connected into popular culture, watching television, videos, the internet. You have to shop and experiment with your look. You have to hang with your friends, either in person or virtually. Being social significantly cuts into the 10,000 hours it takes to become great at a subject or activity.
There is much more prestige accrued to a girl for being attractive and likeable than for being a math nerd. Indeed, a female math nerd still is likely to be looked on as an anomaly. She may be liked and respected more than in my generation, but she is still a bit weird. Just look at Amy on The Big Bang Theory. Who would you rather be: nerdy awkward Amy or sexy funny Penny? Exactly. Even Amy wants Penny.
My father was a physicist and I did everything I could to feign disinterest and lack of aptitude. The math and science teachers in my day were beyond boring and dry and there was absolutely nothing cool about continuing with math and science. So I didn’t. Even though I was good at math and science, it was easy to follow a different path. I was a reader and a writer and became an English major. It wasn’t until I took Calculus for non-math majors in college with an electrifying professor who made math fun and relevant that I wondered if maybe I hadn’t been snookered down the wrong rabbit hole. I would have been a wonderful scientist. Quiet, patient, creative, and insightful. (Ah, the path not taken.) Even my mother, a scientist, discouraged me from a scientific career, arguing that it was hard to balance family while running experiments. Well, it’s hard to balance family with any demanding career. Sadly.
My daughter is a nerd. She excels at math and science. Her father is an engineer. We have championed her interest in math and science. She had a terrific female math teacher in 8th grade who was a wonderful role model and her Physics teachers are young and hip. She likes Physics! Can you believe it? Physics! Her math teacher wants her to take a computer programming course. Yes! Go for it girl!
She has dutifully started the groundwork for the college application process, declaring her interest in a math major. Recently, however, she whispered to me, “But Mom, what I really want to be when I grow up is Guiliana Rancic. How does being a math major prepare me for that career?” How indeed? I swallowed my gut reaction, “Stop watching stupid fucking television!” and tried to put myself in her shoes. Guiliana is adorable, if too thin (geesh there I go with the weight judgement again), and she has a great job. Hey, I want to be Guiliana. Why wouldn’t my 17-year-old want her job?
How do I convey to her that there is only one Guiliana and that there are many intriguing and challenging opportunities in math and science? How do I tell her that as a journalism and communications major, she’ll be one of a bazillion girls who wants a job in fashion, entertainment, and media? How do I convince her that she’ll make more money and have more professional prestige in math and science? How do I reassure her that she will be more likely to meet an intelligent and respectful partner who values her intellectual capabilities and her personality, as well as her beauty? How do I encourage her to see the potential to help many people in a meaningful scientific career? How do I help her identify her dreams and realize them in a rewarding way?
In spite of the tremendous strides women have made and society has made in embracing and celebrating women, their interests and their achievements, I believe that women still need money and a room of their own to be freer from chores and to have the space and quiet, the support and security, to pursue their intellectual ambitions. To be proud nerds. As long as popular culture glamorizes fashionistas and housewives instead of mathletes and scientistas, we will all be shortchanged.
Photo is from a fansite for The Big Bang Theory.