A video that came to light today, featuring Neil deGrasse Tyson got me to thinking of my own early struggles in trying to find the right career. Like Tyson, I was fascinated with the stars and one of my earliest career desires was to become an astronomer. However, I also faced discouragement at every turn – from my family, my teachers, and even my peers. I heard it over and over “that’s nice, but that requires a lot of math!” The implication being that I was a girl, and mathematical related subjects weren’t suitable for me. I was young, impressionable, naive and I originally took the safer path and studied elementary education. I avoided mathematics courses as much as possible in my academic life, nearly failing algebra I and II in high school. I was told it was “too hard for girls” and ultimately I believed them.
I earned my degree in education and became a teacher for a couple of years until circumstances arose to make me leave that profession. At that time I was panicked and didn’t know what to do with my life and career. At first I considered technical writing as a career option. I liked to write and while writing fiction was more fun, writing technical facts meant a more steady income. Around that time I also found a love for the World Wide Web and began teaching myself HTML, building my first Web pages. This new found interest led me down a completely unexpected path, ultimately leading me to go back to school to seek a new degree.
The only thing that terrified me about attending graduate school was the statistics course requirement. In my mind, it was “math related” so it must be “hard.” I was pleasantly surprised that not only was it not hard at all, that I excelled in it, and earned an “A” in the course. The first legitimate “A” I’d ever earned in a course that was somewhat math oriented. I then dove into my graduate courses with a renewed fervor, ultimately earnings a Master of Science in Technical Communication. My specialization was Web Usability, a field I had a passion for at the time – as I saw so many poorly designed, practically unusable, Web sites cropping up all over the place.
Unfortunately usability was a very niche career field, and many companies (including the one I was employed at) were reluctant to spend the money to do a “proper” usability study of their web sites. We kept designing and redesigning our corporate site, making assumptions along the way and bending to the will of the executives (who would spend hours arguing whether or not they preferred yellow buttons, or purple!).
Then the concept of Web Analytics started to take off and more companies were using that data in order to make more informed decisions about their web sites. Finally, in 2004 our company also decided to look into implementing one of these tools. We spent 6 months and several proof-of-concepts before we choose a tool, and I was tasked with getting trained on how to implement and manage it. Web analytics became an increasing part of my job and I found a new passion. I enjoyed this role so much that I ultimately went independent in late 2008, forming my own consulting business.
So this little girl who was taught to fear numbers and mathematics because of her gender, now works, and thrives in a field that surrounds her with numbers and mathematics daily.
If you know any little girls who dream of becoming astronomers, mathematicians or scientists, don’t tell them “that’s nice, but … ” Instead, encourage them. Mentor them. Who knows what that little girl might become when she grows up to be a woman.