I’m a nerd, a geek, though I suppose not enough of one to get caught up in the arguments over which of those terms is positive and which one is the insult. I was a female computer geek back before there were enough of us for people to even start whining about “fake girl geeks” showing up at cons. When being a woman interested in tech meant you and a roomful of guys who didn’t quite know what to do with you.
I’ve read the studies, I know the statistics, and the reality is that even now in 2013, the majority of girls don’t make it out of junior high still feeling good about their abilities in math and the hard sciences. By the time they get to college, not many girls are still in the pipeline of women in technology. While the problem is multifaceted, we know that the combination of peer pressure and negative gender stereotypes makes it an uphill battle. No matter a person’s actual skill level, when the prevailing message is that people like them aren’t good at a particular subject area and there aren’t many role models, they start to internalize that message.
I missed that message.
Or rather, I should say that by the time I became aware of the idea that girls aren’t supposed to be good at math, I was sufficiently confident in my abilities that I concluded that something must be wrong with a society that says that girls can’t do math.
Being homeschooled by a former math teacher meant that it was expected that I learn enough math that the door was open to any path I might decide to pursue in college, and my sister and I were held to the same expectations as my brothers were.
I never got the message that my gender was in some way supposed to be correlated with lower math ability, or that it meant I should limit my dreams and goals for the future.
At its best, homeschooling can create a learning environment that helps to minimize the influence of societal pressures to conform to rigid gender roles and to live up (or down) to the expectations of society. That’s what homeschooling did for me. The prevailing message of my childhood was that I could be or do whatever I wanted and that no one could stop me. I didn’t internalize most of the negative gender stereotypes about women because the negative messages were drowned out by the positive. I’m convinced that one of the reasons why I was able to hold my own in the extremely male-dominated computer science major I ended up choosing in college was because I hadn’t internalized the message that I wasn’t supposed to be able to do it because I’m a girl.
It would be dishonest of me, though, to write about my positive personal experiences without also acknowledging the tension between the message I got in my own family and the messages I got from the broader homeschool world. When I was a teenager, I became acutely aware that the expectations that others had for my older brother were vastly different than what was expected for me. I was the one who wanted to go to law school, but I felt like everyone was busy encouraging my brother—who had no interest in law—to become a lawyer while not taking my interests seriously. When I changed my major to computer science in college, I got the distinct impression that it wasn’t taken seriously unless I gave the justification that programming was a career that could allow me to work from home while being a good wife and mother.
At its best, homeschooling can open up a broad range of options and free a child from the pressures of stereotypes, at its worst, it can reinforce those negative stereotypes and close off options.
For me, my homeschool experience meant that I was able to go off to college confident in my abilities and with my options open. It meant that while I was convinced that I was going to go major in history and then head directly to law school, when I discovered my freshman year that computer science interested me, I had the foundation to succeed. In the end, I discovered that studying computer science was far more interesting to me than actually doing it, and ended up with the original law school plan, but having that tech background gives me opportunities that a liberal arts major wouldn’t.
I’m not yet sure where my story ends, but it’s been an interesting ride and one that homeschooling helped make possible.