• Educating Gender

The Myth of my "Fuzzy" Brain: Access and Confidence for Girls in STEM

Guest Blogger: Alisha Pedowitz


I remember exactly when it was that I realized that my brain just isn’t wired for math: 10th grade Algebra 2 with Mrs. Martin.

I remember my frustration that the concepts just didn’t click as easily for me as they did in other subjects—and, how this was clear evidence that I just didn’t have a math brain.

That realization caused me to opt out of taking Pre-Calculus the next year, and, thus off of the track that I was on with my fellow honors students toward taking Calculus in 12th grade.

It was a realization that was solidified as a Stanford undergrad, when I was quite happy to declare myself a “fuzzy” (Stanford’s term of endearment for anyone in a liberal arts or social sciences major versus the “techie” STEM majors), and, since I knew my brain wasn’t oriented for math or science, I was relieved that there were plenty of “fuzzy” options for me to choose from to meet my math and science requirements without having to actually, well, do much math or science.

And, to this day, this understanding of myself and how my brain is wired still sticks. I feel a familiar sinking in my stomach when I open a budget spreadsheet. I have to fight the instinct to tell myself that someone else is probably better suited to look at and make meaning out of these numbers than me.

And recently, I found that understanding of my identity challenged when I was back in my hometown for my 20 year high school reunion, when, who did I run into at a restaurant? Mrs. Martin, my 10th grade Algebra 2 teacher. As I started to say hello—“Mrs. Martin? You probably don’t remember me, but I was your student 20+ years ago—” she interrupted me with, “Of COURSE I remember you! Alisha Teichner. You were one of the smartest students I ever had.”

Her words left me dumbstruck. I was one of the smartest students she ever had? But, I struggled so much in her class, to the point that I reached this very fundamental understanding of myself as “just not a math person.”

Yet, all evidence—her report card, feedback from her teachers, her ability to independently apply concepts to figure out her math homework—points to the contrary. My 3rd grade daughter definitely “gets” math. Not only gets it, but she is GOOD at it.

And, about the same time as I had this experience of calling this whole aspect of my identity as “not a math person” into question, I was witnessing something parallel happening with my 9 year old daughter. My daughter, who thrives in all things STEM-related (her favorite class at school is “Innovation Lab,” an amazing compilation of art, engineering and science, where students get to imagine, build, and create; and, her 6th birthday party was themed after her idol, “Rosie Revere, Engineer,” where she led her friends in various DIY STEM projects, something she still does to this day)—started saying things like, “I’m just not good at math.”

Yet, all evidence—her report card, feedback from her teachers, her ability to independently apply concepts to figure out her math homework—points to the contrary. My 3rd grade daughter definitely “gets” math. Not only gets it, but she is GOOD at it.

And, if I think back to Mrs. Martin’s 10th grade class, come to think of it—I am pretty sure I ended up somewhere between an A- and a B+ in that class. Yes, it was much harder for me than my other classes, but, at the end of the day, I “got” it. I just didn’t get that I got it.

Obviously, my daughter and I are not alone in believing that we “just don’t get math” even though, clearly, that’s not the case. There’s plenty of statistics out there to show that, while girls are performing in K-12 education at rates as high as their male counterparts in math and sciences, as they reach higher education, and, careers in STEM fields, huge gender disparities begin to emerge. And, there is research to show that girls’ confidence in their own abilities in these areas (versus their actual abilities)—which is impacted by stereotypes, cultural beliefs, and implicit bias—is a major barrier to their participation in these fields.

I’m going to go ahead here and throw out a “fuzzy” term from the social sciences called “perception bias.” It’s the idea that we interpret our experiences to fit into existing frameworks for and stories of how we understand and make meaning of things. The story that “girls aren’t as good as boys at math/science/engineering” is everywhere in our society (we only need to look as recently as a few weeks ago to the headline story of NASA scrapping its historic first all-female spacewalk because there weren’t enough spacesuits in the proper size for the female astronauts for literal evidence that girls “just don’t fit” in the space program). So, when I, as a girl, started experiencing math as challenging for me, it became evidence for this story. “See? I’m just another girl who doesn’t get math.”

I could have interpreted this story differently. “Wow, look at my grades in math. While it may have challenged me more than some of my other subjects, I worked hard, and, wow, I really got it! Nothing can stop me! I am a kick-ass girl who can conquer anything that challenges me!”

And, what if those people kept reminding me of that along the way, giving me a critical lens to navigate these messages, reminding me to focus on challenging that perception bias so that I could author my own self-story?

But, when I had a very convenient story from society that I can easily fit my experiences into, it makes perfect sense which conclusion I came to.

In my work at the California Director of Moving Traditions, I am part of an organization that understands how important it is to help teens of all genders understand the unhealthy messages they receive constantly from society, through a gender lens—in order to help them navigate those messages and thrive as their whole, healthy selves in the face of sexism. We have to help point out for them the stories in society that are socializing them in particular directions, so that they can decide for themselves if that is the story they want to fit into. And, if not, help give young people the tools to write their own stories, with confidence.

We do this by partnering with Jewish institutions to provide monthly groups (Rosh Hodesh for teens who identify as girls, Shevet for teens who identify as boys, and Tzelem for transgender, nonbinary, gender fluid and gender questioning teens), led by trained adult group leaders, to give teens the safe space to unpack their experiences navigating the gendered messages of society and use one another as they challenge these messages and author their own stories of self. In our 2018 national evaluation efforts, we found that 81% of teens participating in our groups reported that that they are more aware of gender stereotypes and inequality in society, and 77% reported becoming more self-confident after participating.

This work, of explicitly using a gender lens to understand—and help teens push back against—how sexist societal norms impact their identity—has influenced how I think about my own story of “I just don’t get math.”

I wonder if this story might have been different if someone had said to me, in that critical moment as I struggled with math concepts (and succeeded! Kudos to a great teacher, Mrs. Martin, who did help me learn, even if I didn’t realize it), “You know what? We live in a sexist, unfair society where there are messages everywhere that suggest that girls aren’t good at this stuff. Let’s go ahead and call out and name all of those examples. And talk about how those messages are wrong. And, it can be hard to get those messages out of your brain. But look at what you are doing. See how there is evidence to the contrary.” And, what if those people kept reminding me of that along the way, giving me a critical lens to navigate these messages, reminding me to focus on challenging that perception bias so that I could author my own self-story?

I’m going to hold out hope that, if we, as educators, start doing that, there is still the chance that my daughter will write her own story as “Faye Pauline, Math & Science Queen,” as she sees with confidence that she does, indeed, get math.


Alisha Pedowitz is the California Director of Moving Traditions, which emboldens teens by fostering self-discovery, challenging sexism, and inspiring a commitment to Jewish life and learning. Alisha has made her career working with teens, using the richness of Jewish community, ritual, tradition, and wisdom to help them thrive.

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