The paralyzing guilt of being good at math 2

I’m okay at math. Or at least I was. I haven’t done anything more difficult than long division and some statistics in years, and the thing about math is that it’s a language. If you don’t use it, you tend to forget how to do it. (Though conversely it’s easier to pick back up on the second go round.)

I almost ended up going for an applied mathematics minor to go with my bachelor’s degree. The reason I didn’t was because one of the geologists I worked with at the time pulled me aside and laid down some truth: How much do you really like math, Rachael? Eh, not that much. Well, if you get any kind of degree, even a minor in math, and it gets around the office you’re working in, you will be The Math Guy. All of the other geologists will fling the math at you in the hopes it will stick, so they don’t have to do it, because geologists are lazy. So unless you want to spend the rest of your life doing math, get a minor in something else.

I followed his advice. I didn’t get a minor in something else, I got a second major in Japanese Language and Culture. (Still waiting for the other geologists to fling their Japanese stuff at me. So far, no luck.) I might have been okay at math, with the potential to be good at it, but I never really liked it. Not enough that I wanted to keep doing math outside of a context that involved a hot Russian doctoral candidate teaching us three dimensional solids.

I was telling my friend John Dee about this while we were hanging out in the Oklahoma City airport and waiting for our flights. Yeah, John, I was almost the math guy. And I was trying to articulate to him how I still sometimes feel a little guilty that I’m not the math guy, entirely because I’m a woman.

It’s a weird, weird thing to think about, but there can be a lot of pressure you feel, if you’re a woman who is even peripherally interested in math, engineering, or science.

Because this is the thing. When you’re a woman, you spend a lot of time getting told by the media, by your peers, even by teachers, that girls just aren’t good at math. Our ladybrains can’t handle it, because logic! And masculine things! And we’re diaphanous right-brained creatures of art and emotions (and presumably bullshit). Math is a Man Thing. And then from the other side you hear over and over and over again that there are not enough women doing science, engineering, and math. Because no shit we can do it, so we have to overcome the institutional barriers in or way.

(And then this traitorous voice in your head asks, do I not like doing math because I don’t actually like doing it, or because the patriarchy has convinced me in its horrid, insidious way that I shouldn’t, just like I’m still deep down emotionally convinced that I hate my body?)

I was actually interested in doing geophysics instead of pure geology, when I went back to Uni for my bachelors. Then the undergrad counselor pulled me aside and basically said the program was just way too hard, and way too much math. I have no idea if he ever gave that line to a man who was interested in geophysics. Ultitmately, I’m also glad I didn’t decide to keep going and beat my head against those physics classes (because I would have, I’m damn stubborn sometimes, and it would have been miserable), but thinking about it still makes me so angry I could spit nails.

It feels almost like, if you can prove people wrong, then you should. Like there’s some kind of obligation to not let the side down and give the essentialist nonsense more fuel. Like you have something to prove on behalf of an entire unfairly maligned gender. Only you know it will never be enough proof to get those guys to shut the hell up.

I don’t want to do math. What’s wrong with that? Why should I feel compelled to spend my life doing something I don’t like just because some impotent, bald asshole wants to believe he’s superior by grace of chromosomal lottery? (And where did this secondary bullshit narrative come from, that math as an academic topic is somehow more worthy a pursuit than geology, or literature, or dance for that matter?)

There are days when I really do wish I had a math minor on my diploma, just so I could wrap that paper around my fist and then punch anyone who says girls can’t do math. Fuck you, I can do math. I just choose to not. Which is a million times better than being an condescending asshole and choosing to open your damn mouth.

Life is really too short for this nonsense, and I resent that it’s still got its claws sunk into my brain. Do what you’re good at, as long as it’s what you love.

2 thoughts on “The paralyzing guilt of being good at math

  1. Reply Miranda Nov 9,2013 00:39

    I struggled with this a lot (and still do a little) when I went back to grad school for teaching. I thought I should learn more programming, I should be a manager, I should do the things that they say we can’t do, even though I really hate it and it made me miserable. I was one of 6 girls in a 30 person computer class in college and how can I just throw that away? But sometimes we do have to do what keeps us sane I guess!

Leave a Reply