With each dawn, dialogue, and downturn
– downpours, too
ergonomics and economies dictate energy.
Economic impacts expand far
beyond employment and stories drop
– downstairs in the kitchen, too.
Hope blooms eternal, the saying goes. Spring, too. Perennials – candy cane sorrels and blue grape hyacinths. Annuals – geraniums, impatiens. Patiently impatient. Waiting for the next time. Awaiting time. Even when time stops, time ticks. Spring has always been a blur of fair weather. School fairs, as well. A bevy of activity in all disciplines: Business. Computer. Science. Quiz bowls. Bowls of botany greens. Even in 2020. 2021, too. Somehow, the organizers found a way. So much change. Change so little. School is virtual. Science fair, too. With all work done at home – across the kitchen table – learning becomes more visible. Our home is no exception. The student, my child, eager to experiment. Eager to experience and execute the scientific method, too. Accepting of all expectations. Except everything seems harder than ever before.
The fair organizers communicated often. Online forms. Video presentations. Approaching due dates. Deadlines, too. Days on end. Calendars on the mend. Quick now. Can’t fall behind. Seek approvals. Seek data. Seek science. The electronic messages were cryptic. Record. Upload. Rubrics. Review. The papers, in contrast, scattered across the dark oak, were clear. Some mattered to scientists. Some did not. As I cleared the clutter, my eyes caught words – small bits of phrases. Small moments, memories too, of Spring. Stories of Spring bloom.
“7-minute maximum. Do not exceed.”
Time ticks. Eyes scroll. Eyes beside me. Watch. Eyes settle. New section. Analytical ability.
“Is he evaluating the significance of his own data properly?”
“Is he aware of sources of error?”
Eyes continue to scroll. Presentation Scoring.
“Is the student’s competency with the principles such that he can answer questions with clarity, and elaborate where necessary to make a point?
Competency assessed. Gender assumed. On the Mathematics, Computer Science, and
Engineering rubrics, too.
It’s not the first time I noticed the text. The chosen words. It’s a perennial. Hydrangea, Hibiscus. He. Returns yearly. No need for planting. The fair has used the same rubric for the past ten years, at least. Each year, I scoff and squabble with the air between it and I. Sometimes the others listen. Most often they leave the room. Don’t cause trouble, the elder He in the room says. Not worth it.
In the past, I’ve listened. So many distractions. But if this isn’t worth it, what is?
I’ve been wanting to write about this dusty, dated, discriminatory rubric for a while now. Never knew how. I lacked an angle, as they say. Angles always just out of reach.
In some respects, I still wonder how the language has persisted. In others, I’m surprised that I wonder at all. I don’t know why I’m surprised, nonetheless. I’ve grown used to the oversights. Yet less used to my compliance.
My instincts inflamed. I turned to continue to clear the clutter and tried to collect my thoughts.
At best an oversight. Most certainly a message.
Electronic messages everywhere. Lately, it’s been a bit of a challenge. I challenge. Eyes rolls.
My son collected my thoughts for me.
“Hey, why does it say he?” he asked. “Everyone can do science”.
It’s no wonder the computer club at our local high school is 100% male. It’s also no wonder that science fair participation is predominantly male. In fact, it’s no wonder at all that science “has a diversity problem” (Nature, 2019).
When language is exclusionary, reality is too.
It’s also no wonder women still incur feelings of not belonging on a daily basis.
For young scientists who identify in any way other than “he”, the rubric tells them they don’t belong even before they get started.
I know the feeling. I’ve been called an odd duck most of my life. Growing up, I always thought it was me. We all did. I was taught to comply, center all comments – no left or right justifications allowed, and never confuse my place with theirs. Ideas mattered, of course, as long as the ideas were theirs. Not mine. Not of the mind. I grew up as a learner who defied normal conventions while never being permitted space for defiance.
Electives were reserved for period 7. Two times a week. In home economics we made pillows, all thirty of us girls. Across the hall, the boys learned to code. In Binary. I want to be there. But thinking was binary, too.
I remember what it was like to push through walls of bodies – clothes in tie-dye cotton, frayed denim, and patched leather puffers – to make my way towards a classroom in which I was not welcome. I recall, too, what it was like to approach my high school chemistry teacher for advice – I had an interest in medicine, computers, too. There’s no future, don’t do it, he cautioned. And I listened. Head nodded, pencil tapped, feet shuffled. I thanked him.
Later, at university, I tried again. I asked for advice on writing. There’s no audience, don’t do it, he cautioned. And I listened. Again. Thanked him, too. His office, up the two flights of stairs, beyond the glass door, hidden, a bit off West 8th. A faded “Writing Center” affixed in sticky decals and scraped paint. Simpsons stickers decorated the metal filing cabinet in the far-right corner. He sat in the tattered leather chair behind the wooden desk. Cramped, always. His long legs tied in knots beneath faded black denim and near sheer knees as raw knuckles gripped instruments – electric red.
Though his name escapes me, I hear his voice in my head. I still see the giant red D on my first essay. Drafted, crafted and then shared my Story. My everything. Mama and Papa. The House. The Secrets. The Pregnancy. The Lost Pregnancy. The Lies. My way Out. Mine. Not Theirs. I told him everything.
And then he decided everything I told him was Less Than. Me. Not Him.
Part of me hopes he is no longer teaching. Part of me hopes he is. We need him, of course. Never enough teachers. Especially males. Last I read 80% were female and fair skinned.
If only I had thicker skin. Perhaps he would not haunt me so. Me. Not Him.
Turns out I’m not alone. Most women have been recipients of similar messages.
A recent article published by Monash Lens (2021) explores the realities of being a woman at the top of academic fields. Turns out the view from the top can be / is / just as disconcerting as that from the bottom.
The persistent challenge of low diversity representation in the sciences has been decades in the making. At global, national, regional, state, and local levels, women and women of color in STEM fields are both underrepresented and often marginalized. Despite trends suggesting that technology and engineering related skills are among those most in demand in the workplace, deep gender gaps persist (Lund et. al, 2019). Computer science, engineering, and technology fields consistently demonstrate the most significant gender imbalances both in higher education and the workplace (STEM Women, 2019). This imbalance and associated gaps originate early in educational journeys and commonly present and extend throughout all career levels (Carlana, 2019).
Even for the subset of women who transcend educational barriers and undertake careers in STEM fields, research suggests that these women tend to leave the workplace at much higher rates and at much sooner dates than their male counterparts (Else, 2019; Frank, 2019). More recently, COVID-19 has further compounded this problem, with women abandoning the workforce “at four times the rate as men” (Schneider, Hsu, & Horsley, 2020, para. 1).
“I can’t keep this up,” one woman tells NPR.
None of us should have to.
When I first commented on the rubric to another parent, he said: “Now, with COVID and all, it doesn’t seem the right time. Are you really going to add more to their plate? Don’t cause trouble.”
But trouble comes in many forms. I think of John Lewis and good trouble.
There’s always a reason not to. Not to say something. Not to raise the issue. Not to raise awareness.
What’s the big deal, he added?
And then I thought of other times I’ve been asked the same.
Last week, I asked for two pounds of chicken breasts and he brought home three pounds of thighs. I blame it on the media. Magazines, too. Long legs covered in sheer nylon beckon on front and back covers. The thighs were on sale, 99 cents a pound, he stated bluntly. and tossed the plastic bag of groceries on the counter. What’s the big deal?, he asked. I should have spoken, but grabbed the chicken, peeled back the cellophane, and positioned the Kitchen Aid instead.
The big deal is everything and anything. It’s the details of the day to day, including the rubric document, its choice of words, and its rules.
In Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng writes of a progressive suburb – Shaker Heights – where everything is planned. The rules are set: the layout of the town’s roads, permitted colors of the houses that line them, and expectations for those that reside within.
In worlds of middle and high-school science fair, workplaces of all kinds, and scientific laboratories of all natures – the reality is no different. The rules are set. Everything is planned. If we are to change the narrative, we must impact plot and character wherever stories permit.
I think of little stories everywhere. Women firefighters (in a small Maryland district a powerful cohort of black female firefighters pave new trails on a daily basis (Reneau, 2020)) and athletes (Megan Rapino breaking down boundaries and generating dialogue celebrating women in sports (Harmata, 2019); Katie Sowers changing the way the world watches football through verbal and non-verbal dialogue (Billings, 2020)).
Thanks to popular media, we know their faces. We are more aware of their stories. Each doing remarkable things. Each doing something. There’s never a right time. Only time.
A recent interaction with colleague provided another reminder in online work and learning contexts. My work responsibilities include the review of pre-term course set-ups for online programs. I work in the social sciences, but in a recent term was assigned a new team of STEM faculty. I noticed an instructor did not upload an image to our university learning management system (per policy). I emailed and shared a job aid. The instructor replied and noted that while she used to include a personal image, she no longer does. She explained that her name does not reveal that she is a person of color and, in her experiences, whenever she did not include a photo student focus would be directed more toward her subject matter knowledge and teaching ability.
Harris (2019) writes that “[i]n more than a dozen academic fields—largely STEM related—not a single black student earned a doctoral degree in 2017” (para. 1). If STEM instructors of color remain hesitant to share their racial identity with students how will the challenge of under-representation in STEM fields ever change? Many look to online programs as opportunities to expand access to females and students of color in STEM fields (Drew, Galindo-Gonzalez, Ardissone, & Triplett, 2016). How will we ever see changes in numbers if our mentors, role models, and current (however small) sample of female and instructors of color leaders in these areas are not comfortable sharing this central part of themselves? Moreover, what happens when we take steps to conceal our gender and racial identities with the purported goal of emphasizing our subject matter knowledge and teaching ability? While I recognize that the choice is not mine to be made, I cannot help but think that removing an image helps only to perpetuate existing biases in ways not unlike the use of “he” in a science fair rubric.
And so, I decided to do something. Despite the bad timing, the questionable bigness of the problem, and those that told me not to. Every individual can and should for activism is something that takes “many forms, and occurs in actions both large and small” (Rose, 2017, p. 68). Saying nothing in the face of blatant exclusionary text only exacerbates the silent and pernicious work of the system we work within. Marian Wright Edelman (Founder of Children’s Defense Fund) writes that “Enough committed fleas biting strategically can make even the biggest dog uncomfortable and transform even the biggest nation. You just need to be a flea against injustice” (Goodreads, 2021).
I might not be able to bite, but I can buzz.
I – we – sent an email, from my account.
The text read as follows:
Please review the text of the posted rubric. My son and I would like to better understand use of the pronoun “he” in Sections [ ].
My son signed his name, too. Right below mine.
I’m sure they’re busy. In-boxes always stuffed. Real problems, real people, real trouble. We are still waiting to hear back.
Jen Schneider is an educator, attorney, and writer. She lives, writes, and works in small spaces throughout Philadelphia. Recent work appears in The Popular Culture Studies Journal, Toho Journal, The New Verse News, Zingara Poetry Review, Streetlight Magazine, Chaleur Magazine, LSE Review of Books, and other literary and scholarly journals.
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