Sunday, February 21, 2016

Freedom of Choice? Or Fearful Oppression?

My two daughters looked at me like I had grown a rainbow horn in the middle of my forehead. Like I was an absolute, utter moron.

What had I said to them? This: “You would both be wise to seriously consider a college and career focus in science, math or engineering.” And they looked at me with annoyed disgust.

My words were a new take on the exact advice my father offered me when I was in high school and college (his focused on business and economics). I believe I condescendingly guffawed. My father shrugged and passively resigned himself as I spent his tuition money on majors in English and psychology -- (and not even a B.S., dammit!) -- instead of a willingness to give his suggestion even half of my college study time.

Why the hell would I study business or economics, the two things that seemed as if they made the world a less happy, less friendly, less decent place? Why would I dedicate my life to those things when I just learned how to write a sestina and learned about Milgram and Piaget?? He was looking at the check book, and I was looking into the SOUL!

There’s a storyline percolating out there that would suggest my daughters are the victims of an oppressive, patriarchal family or society that beats down their confidence, that makes them question their own abilities and potential in the STEM world, that pushes women away from such fields. Sorry, I’m not buying it. Not entirely, anyway.

Our girls attend an academically intense all-girls school that has recently worked its tail off to bring matters like entrepreneurialism and STEM areas into the spotlight. Their parents are reasonable center-left liberals who are in support of raising eventually-independent thinkers and doers. They have long been told that matters involving their bodies and their minds are ultimately choices they must make for themselves, not things a parent can dictate or control.

Surely they are no more oppressed in their STEM disgust than their father, whose reaction to a similar question about a similar matter was so very similar to their own, even as I enjoyed the benefits of growing up white and male and privileged (enough).

In my daughters and their friends, I see a lot of gifted and hardworking young women who simply aren’t interested in jumping on that bandwagon. Not all of them, but most. Do they know choosing STEM practically guarantees them financial security for the rest of their lives? Yeah, they’ve been told so a hundred times.

They also know kale is really, really healthy and good for you, but they don’t seem motivated to incorporate that into their regular diet. They like chicken nuggets too much.

Let’s flip the script. My honors poetry writing class had four males and eight females. My higher-up child development courses, and my favorite psych class ever, “Interpersonal Relationships,” was easily 75% female, probably more. The same was true with my wife’s education courses. Is this wrong? Have men been scared away from professions that require certain kinds of creativity, or from professions that involve feelings or human connections? Is there a secret Reverse Prejudice at play?

Or do we like what we like, some wild interplay of genetics, nurture within a family unit, and the expectations and pressures of the greater society around us?

My eldest daughter is keenly interested in psychology. My younger girl is interested in teaching… although as a courtesy to me she’s keeping physical therapy on her radar, because that’s sort of like a sciencey thing, and she’s a pleaser at heart. The elder is interested in what makes people tick, and the younger is interested in directly helping people, particularly children. They are interested, precisely, in the kinds of professions their parents were.

The reality of their interests and opportunities reflect what Christina Hoff Sommers has claimed is really happening with women in careers right now, and it’s just not as simple as sexism and oppression.

Is there sexism in the workplace? Absolutely. I’ve seen it, and I’ve had too many conversations with women who ran into it head-on. But when we strive to oversimplify what is in fact highly complex and nuanced -- say, a lack of women pursuing careers in STEM -- it’s like conducting heart surgery with a sledgehammer.

And that’s not the kind of scientific solution anyone should recommend.

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