It was a jungle in there, with the hooting and the hollering and the sweating and smelling as she walked into the first meeting of the club that would define her high school career, shedding her royal blue windbreaker as she transitioned from the brisk coolness of the outside fall air into the humid, sweaty atmosphere that was the robotics club. She picked out an empty spot in the back of the room, and walked over to stand, tall and proud at her full height of 5 ft 0, determined to show the room full of boys that she was not intimidated by them, and that she thought of herself as every bit their equal. Her hair was pulled back, almost severely, into a ponytail, as her eyes, owl-like as they were magnified through her thick, black glasses, swept across the mass of teenage boys. Her eyes hit upon the one difference in the blur of testosterone, another girl, hiding in the back corner of the classroom, clutching her notebook to her chest, chewing on her hair as her eyes darted nervously around the room. Their eyes met, and they grinned at each other.
Two years later, Prachi Mishra won’t deny that she was overwhelmed by the sheer number of boys that surrounded her. “There were a lot of boys there… but I think I expected it. In things like the STEM fields, boys have always outnumbered girls, and they still do.”
She’s right. According to research done by College Board, more than 80% of the students who take AP Computer Science are male, and boys are 6 times more likely to take an engineering course than girls are. At the Georgia Institute of Technology, a school noted for its excellence in engineering, boys outnumber girls almost 3 to 1. But it’s not that girls don’t excel, when they do go into STEM.
A boy in the junior class ruffles his hands through his hair. He’s been taking Computer Science for two years. “We, uh, sometimes have trouble with our code in class, and we always ask like some of the girls for help, since they always seem to know what they’re doing”. He seems a little uncomfortable at the interview, but admits easily that the girls in his class are just as good, or maybe even better, than him at coding. “Girls, they’re always on top of what they’re doing” he laughs.
Prachi’s working hard on her project for the Cardboard Boat Regatta for her UHS Physics class. “I definitely get some special treatment,” Prachi says as she carefully measures, then hacks through the piece of cardboard. Sometimes she feels like her teachers aren’t as hard on her as they are on some of the boys. “I don’t think it affects how I act, though. I still work hard, just as hard as any of the boys.”
Yet treating boys and girls differently has some unintended negative consequences. Although the boys agree that their female peers work hard, some think that girls don’t have to work as hard to be recognized. A nice boy, dressed impeccably, sits on top of a nice leather chair. He types furiously as the glare from his laptop screen reflects off his glasses. “I 100% believe girls get more (unfair) opportunities,” he writes. He’s clearly indignant, and he’s right- clearly it isn’t fair. Girls and boys aren’t being treated the same. A girl, the president of the school’s WeQuality Club, decides to hold a leadership seminar just for girls. “That doesn’t seem very WeQual to me”, a boy quips, clearly thinking himself to be clever.
Prachi looks up from where she’s wrapping tape around her boat and pushes her glasses back up on her nose. “The way I think about it, we’ve all got the same brains. It shouldn’t matter if the brain is male or female.” But that’s not true. Science has shown that the female and male brain of a human are different. While men have seven times more grey matter than women, women have ten times more white matter. None of this means that one gender is better or worse than the other, it means that simply, they think differently. Perhaps these slight differences in brain development and structure contribute to the common stereotype that girls simply aren’t as good as boys in science and technology and engineering and math. Even with the stereotypes set against them though, we don’t see girls underperforming. The nice boy, surrounded by his beigeness, relents that most girls in STEM are “more than qualified to compete with boys and kick their butts”. But girls have to work harder, against the way that society views them to get to the point where they are on equal standing with the boys.
Imagine a race. At the starting point, anyone would agree that it would be grossly unfair if one competitor were to be given a head start. But what isn’t seen is girls pushing down barrier after barrier just to get to the starting line. Maybe it’s then that girls get their “special treatment”, to help them break down the barriers that simply do not exist for boys.
Is getting that extra boost to the starting line worth it though, when the boys start attributing victories to “special treatment”? Girls are starting with a disadvantage, but kids grow up in an environment where stereotypes are ingrained into minds in a way that the disadvantage isn’t even noticeable anymore. We automatically hand the little girl the paint brush, and the little boy the hammer, and later in life, we forget that we never taught the little girl how to be in a STEM field. We forget that we gave the little boy the boost, we helped the little boy knock down his barriers, and didn’t do the same for the little girl. This is starting to fade, as programs are being directed at little boys and little girls equally, so that they truly start out with a level playing field. For the girl though, who’s still at that disadvantage, maybe it’s okay to let her go off on her own and break down her own barriers. Sure, she’ll have to work harder, but hard work only makes her stronger. Then, there would be no excuses, no other option than to attribute her success to her actions.
Prachi has her hands in the robot, carefully crimping a tiny PWM wire. It’s dinner time, but while everyone else is in the cafeteria, she stays in the shop, determined to finish her work. Later in the week, the robot whirls to life, spinning in a circle then blasting out a ball. The whole team cheers, and she smiles quietly to herself. The robot works, and the blood, sweat, and tears that she put in played a vital role. She’s an amazing person. In addition to Robotics, she’s taking the hardest Physics class that she can, doing incredible research, and running circles around the boys in her AP Computer Science class. Perhaps without special treatment, she would hear fewer accusations that she’s “using gender politics to pull herself ahead”, and would earn the admiration that she deserves.