When I was a freshman I took calculus, like many biology majors. I was told I would fail, so naturally I absolutely had to get an A.
My class was relatively small, about 50 students. A good variety of students, including gender and race, since it was in Louisiana. There was a group of loud kids, two sorority girls and two boys who played sports. They always talked during class, showed up late, didn’t pay attention.
I did well, got A’s on my exams. I knew some students also taking calculus, mainly male. They never asked my grade, and when I proudly mentioned it (always higher than theirs), they ignored me. Although they struggled at times, they never asked me for help. I got the feeling they thought my scores were luck, a fluke.
Before we took the final I was pretty confident. I had a varied study strategy and done the homework. I only needed a B. The rowdy kids were being loud again, this time the boys talking shit about the girls. Suddenly the professor gestured to the girls and said: “They are my 2 best students.”
I was floored. The girls broke every stereotype. They looked like typical sorority girls, LSU style – long hair, baggy Greek shirts with shorts. They were always late, talking in class, and generally acting like freshmen.
For a moment I thought about my gender stereotypes. All semester people had told me that, regardless of the grade that I got, women were bad at math. My gender made it impossible, and so did theirs.
It wasn’t until graduate school that I managed to overcome these emotions, this self-skepticism. I often feel guilty that my sexism lasted as long as it did. But I got a degree in philosophy, I wrote a philosophy thesis in the honors program. Women are even more poorly represented in philosophy – but I never noticed, I didn’t care. How could that be?
Nobody told me I was supposed to be bad at philosophy. I didn’t understand why people reacted negatively when I told them, although I do now.
I think of this story when people mention they think my math training is weak, or assume I’m not interested in abstract problems. Like many who are affected by stereotype threat, my background does not represent who I am. It represents who I was told I could be, and my fight against that.