When I speak to children at schools across the world, many share a common misconception: girls are bad at math. While this damaging stereotype is absolutely ridiculous and has been debunked by research, I have a lot of empathy for the kids who believe it. That’s because when I walked into my 12th grade physics class nearly 15 years ago, I ended my first day of school convinced my extra X chromosome had left me genetically predisposed to poor math skills and engineering incompetence.
Physics was never a big interest of mine, but I knew even at 17 I wanted to be a scientist. Since physics and math are essential to any scientific education, and would massively increase my odds for a university scholarship, I took every science class my school offered. But physics class left me feeling alone and out of my depth. I was a good student, but the material did not come naturally to me. At least it didn't seem to come are naturally to me as the boys I sat next to. Whether it was building catapults or calculating the voltage in a circuit, they approached each task with confidence and completed them with ease. My struggles, on the other hand, were apparent to everyone. My difficulties were even more obvious because I was the only girl enrolled in the class. I was the target of jokes and was no one’s first choice for group projects. Each bad day just further reinforced my belief I didn’t belong.
For years this experience taught me to believe that boys, as a result of some innate, imperceptible quality, were better at physics, math, and engineering than girls. It took years of college, exposure to other women in science, and working through my own career to shake myself free of this belief.
Still, I am often left wondering why I felt so far behind the rest of the class, before the school year had even begun! Once I became a mother, I found a clue in the local toy aisle.
Disappointingly, many stores continue to use gendered designs and packaging for their toys. Transformers and building blocks in blue, dolls and kitchen play sets in pink. This is despite research which shows just how harmful this divide can be. Early exposure to different toys can affect children’s career ambitions and skills sets. Boys are encouraged to explore toys that naturally develop their skills in STEM, while over time girls are steered away from what STEM careers could offer. Is it any wonder that by the time high school rolls around, girls feel excluded and intimidated by these subjects?
Children of all genders should be given the chance to engage with every aspect of their imagination. We need to create gender-neutral packaging and avoid teaching our children unfounded and outdated ideas that can stifle their potential. Things are changing, but more needs to be done, and it can start with something as simple as the toys you bring into your home.
To celebrate this International Day of Women and Girls in STEM, I will be buying my daughter blocks. I hope you do to.