Today I’m going to tell you a story about a time that I was told I wasn’t allowed to do something because I’m a girl, and exactly why you should never ever listen to anybody who tells you these words.
Since beginning my internship with Girl Museum, I have made it my mission to read through every single one of their amazing exhibitions. I am a self-confessed museum and culture nerd, and greatly enjoyed everything I read on art, history, politics, etc. When I reached their exhibition STEM Girls, however, I was initially very hesitant: I consider myself someone who is not very scientific, and I very much struggled with science class in school. I was worried this exhibition would lead me down a path I didn’t understand.
As I read through this exhibition, however, I became increasingly fascinated by what I was reading, and increasingly frustrated that I had never heard of any of the amazing achievements of women and girls in the field of science. I always knew science was a male-dominated industry, but the extent of which had never truly dawned on me until that moment.
Something else occurred to me too: I remembered I wasn’t always so dismissive of science, and used to enjoy science class when I was a child. Chemistry, in particular, interested me, to the extent it was my favourite subject at one point. I had forgotten this: what I remembered instead of high school chemistry class was when at the age of fifteen, I told a friend I wanted to pursue chemistry for A-Level, only for my teacher to lean over his desk to tell me ‘You can’t do science: you’re a woman!’ He offered no explanation for his words. He didn’t need to; he had already stunned me into silence. Instead, he smirked at me, pointedly, and continued with his lesson. These words have stayed with me throughout my entire life, as has the triumphant expression on his face when I felt tears spring to my eyes.
I remember shrinking to the back of his class from then on, refusing to partake in experiments, refusing to raise my hand, even when I knew the answer, and deliberately dropping chemicals down the laboratory sinks. When, one time, he caught me deliberately dropping a glass pipette to the floor and smashing it, I looked him in the eye, with all the venom I could muster, and told him that he shouldn’t blame me, or my ‘clumsy little woman hands’.
None of these stories are moments in my life I am proud of. At the time, I was determined that my reaction was out of rebellion: a petty response to a petty insult. Looking back, I realise my reaction was one of fear. I wasn’t angry: I was scared. In participating in his lessons, I would only give him the opportunity to humiliate me further, give myself the potential to fail, and, worse still, the potential to prove him right. As a result of my fear, and my refusal to try, chemistry was the lowest grade I received in school.
So, just like that, the man spoke one sentence, and consequently deterred me from something I was passionate about. In retrospect, I feel nothing short of furious on behalf of my younger self: what he said was not okay. At fifteen, I knew that what he said was blatantly incorrect misogyny, but it came from someone I trusted, someone I respected. How was I meant to flourish under the watchful eye of someone who wanted me to fail? For the past several weeks, I have been racking my brain to come up with an explanation of why he would feel the need to say this to me, and, finally, I think I have an answer: I think he was scared. I had the potential to succeed in chemistry and I think he deliberately deterred me from a subject that I loved for the reason that many men feel the need to gatekeep women from science: he knew that women, in fact, can do science. He was merely afraid of all that I could accomplish had my passion been nurtured.
I have a challenge to all the girls reading this who enjoy science, the girls who are considering careers in STEM, or simply the girls who don’t feel like tolerating blatant misogyny. I am going to give you the advice I wished somebody had given me: do not do what I did. Do not give up because narrow-minded individuals want to keep science for themselves: they are only afraid of the power you will one day hold. I challenge you to hold it, be powerful, and succeed on behalf of all the girls like me, who were told we couldn’t. I believe in you! Go out there, love what you do, and prove my chemistry teacher wrong.
Girl Museum Inc.