Alison Schalop: Growing up a girl

Wednesday, October 28, 2015 - 12:40pm

Throughout my childhood, my dad treated his three children exactly the same. We all played sports with him, we all watched New York Giants games with him and he bought all three of us Derek Jeter jerseys every year. My sister and I couldn’t be less interested in sports. My brother is an avid Yankees, Giants, Rangers and, even occasionally, Knicks fan.

Why did this happen? Is it intrinsic in our genetic makeup? Or is it society?

Many would argue that society taught me from a young age to like shopping and my brother, David, to like sports. Yet it hardly feels that way. I had all of the opportunities I wanted to become obsessed with the Yankees, and he had plenty of chances to become enthusiastic about Bloomingdale’s. Yet here we are. My sister and I both fit innumerable stereotypes of girls. We like nail polish, getting dressed up, gossiping, social sciences and occasional reality TV.

While my brother admits to liking certain reality TV, he likes fantasy football, playing soccer and math much more. My sister and I both actually like math, so I shouldn’t withhold that information to force my argument. However, neither of us chose to major in anything STEM-related.

What is it that scares girls off from math and science? Why is it that in seventh grade, more girls take algebra than boys, yet when physics rolls around in 11th grade, more boys enroll than girls? This pattern continues in the world beyond high school where, according to the Department of Education, women make up less than 25 percent of professionals in STEM fields.

I refuse to believe that women are innately lesser than men in STEM fields. I don’t remember the day I stopped thinking, I am completely smart and capable. However, I do remember the first time I felt nervous to raise my hand because I thought a boy in the room would know the better answer. I thought of myself as the smartest girl in the room, but not the smartest person. I was 12 years old.

In ninth grade, I transferred to an all-girls high school. There I realized that I wasn’t even close to the smartest girl in the room. I was suddenly surrounded by geniuses. While an all-girls school is meant to give you the confidence to go out into the world and be the best, I think it did just the opposite. I was taught to be brave in front of other girls, but not other people. Everything changed when I came to the University.

Suddenly I was thrust into a huge campus with thousands of intelligent youths, half of whom were men. I was back in my 12-year-old shoes. Would the boys think I’m stupid? Would they know the right answer? Would they laugh at me?

I really do sound like a middle schooler.

Maybe an all-girls school slowed my development — who knows. What matters is that I felt the same fear I had once felt, despite being taught that I’m an intelligent woman who could amount to anything.

Yet, I feel this firsthand in my classes here at the University. I have observed that when men have an idea that they’re not totally sure about, they say it anyway. When it comes to complex topics I often watch women sit back in their seats and observe. Of course, I’m only speaking from my own experience; I can’t speak for every woman in every classroom. But, what I know for sure is that I personally have felt intimidated to speak because of what the men in the classroom might think. I have to wonder where this stems from, because I know it isn’t in my genetics.

Some things will never change. When my parents go on vacation, they usually bring my brother back a jersey and me a piece of jewelry. I don’t blame them, I would rather have jewelry, after all, and David would rather have a jersey.

It certainly isn’t my parent’s fault; it’s society’s.

Alison Schalop can be reached at aschalop@umich.edu.