Feb 2, 2014

#Girls in #STEM > Guideline #3: Handling Failure

Photo by Gabriella Fabbri, via rgbstock.com
"I'm not smart, I just work hard." This is what so many women told me when I interviewed them for She's an Engineer? Princeton Alumnae Reflect when I interviewed them in the late 80's. This mantra persisted ten years later when I taught at a women's college at the turn of the millineum. It fits with AAUW's findings in Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics regarding female's belief about their intelligence. Somehow, girls in particular grow up believing that they are only smart if it comes easily to them. That it has to be in them already. This is the first exit point for many girls, as I saw first hand when a student explained that she stopped coming to class when we went into material she didn't already know.

The more successful girls believe that they are hiding their inadequacy by working hard. I saw this attitude from the honors students in the Women in Science class. I counter this self-limiting statement with the observation that they are smart enough to work hard. I cite the movie, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In true Chinese form, the movie portrays a woman who may have had mediocre skills to start, but who worked hard and held herself to a higher standard (Yu Shu Lien, played by Michelle Yeoh). Her admirable character is paired with a girl with raw talent who defiantly refuses to work towards a higher level. She believes she is already good enough to live the fantasies she dreams about (Jen, played by Zhang ZiYi). With two women in these opposite roles, the movie removes the stereotypical gendered aspect of these attitudes, and all the students admitted to admiring the older woman more than the younger -- after all, the actions of the latter cause the death and unhappiness of so many in the film. So, then, I point out, working hard is an important part of success, right?

AAUW's report also indicated that women self-assess themselves lower in technical areas than their male counterparts do. I'm not surprised here, either, as studies show that women engineers often dropped out with higher grades (A's and B's) than their male counterparts despite both indicating that they didn't feel they were doing well enough.

One of the most important things to point out to your girls is that struggle and even failure is part of the formula for success. Consider Violet in A Series of Unfortunate Events, Scarlett in Gone with the Wind, Mulan in Mulan, and Anne in Anne of Green Gables. In fact, none of these would have been interesting stories without the struggles each character encountered. Uneventful girls come from uneventful lives. 

I don't deny that struggle and failure are hard to deal with. That's why purpose helps: Bringing home a trophy fish is less important when you are feeding a village. When helping a larger cause, every little bit counts. That's probably why successful STEM programs give a context to the STEM learning (Guideline #5: STEM and...): Working towards something larger than one's self also breeds resilience. Many women I know may hesitate to stand up for themselves, but they will move mountains for a friend or a child. Movies are ripe with such strong (sometimes labeled stubborn) women: Gladys in Inn of the Sixth Happiness, Mother Maria in Lilies of the Field, Hermionie Granger in Harry Potter, and Katniss in Hunger Games.

Help your girl see struggles in STEM in the right context, and you will give her a perspective that will serve her for her whole life.

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Want to learn more about girls in STEM or STEM in general? Contact Yvonne at Engineer's Playground.