In light of a recent discussion and this article on women in science, I thought I’d share an odd personal experience the illustrates the power of words. The tldr; one little comment seriously impacted me, and how upsetting it is now to realize it.

So, on to the personal anecdote: I recently received a message from an ex-boyfriend from high school. This guy’s got a good career and is pretty well off now (good for him and his wife!), and he just wanted to commiserate about how “people like us shouldn’t make it”, and yet we did.

We had a nice little chat about how important opportunities are, and what we hope to offer others in the future. He shared about how he regularly encounters and deals with imposter syndrome, and how triggering seems to happen when his peers talk socially, e.g. whenever they use ‘summer’ as a verb (You know, as in, “Where do you summer?’ or “Which of your summer homes is your favorite?”). We talked about how lucky we were to be in a magnet program and to have parents who cared about our education, even though they couldn’t afford a lot. The conversation ended with us trading respect and compliments of the other’s achievements, and that was that.

Reflecting over the conversation later that day, especially how nice it was for someone who knew my hardships to acknowledge my work, I couldn’t help but think about one comment he made nearly 15 years ago. Yes, teens remember things.

In a conversation about college, my ex said he was thinking about Georgia Tech. I said something along the lines of “It’d be great to go there together,” and he replied, “Oh honey, the math’s probably too hard for you”. When I asked why he thought that, he casually said, “Well, I mean, just look. Girls don’t go there.” Cue disappointment.

Looking back, some events followed: That year was the first year I made a B in math. I decided to track myself out of the AP calculus courses. All of this after being so bored in math a year or so prior that I pierced my own ears in the back of the class. (Yes, crazy).

Eventually, we broke up, as nearly all high school romances do. I went on to college at Georgia Tech (where, yep, math was hard but so was everything), completed grad school, and am now back on faculty, ironically, at Georgia Tech. Yet, I still fight the harbored idea that the math is beyond me. I have data to show it isn’t (heck, I passed, didn’t I?), but those words stuck. No wonder it is so hard to get people to believe data; when something is ingrained, it is hard to shake! And how much worse is it when a loved one says it, versus a complete stranger?

I prided myself for a bit in being unaware (read: blissfully ignorant) of biases, and the few times that something blatant happened, I shut it down. I’m now realizing how naive that line of thought was. Just how many things influenced me without fully registering, and how might I cause unintentional harm with what I say, especially to those I care about?

Embarrassingly, as I learn about the effect of biases such as this, I have to acknowledge that the words of an innocent, but ignorant teen boy almost derailed me from a career in science. It disheartening to think of all that wouldn’t have been, had I not challenged his idea and refused to fully internalize it. And wild enough, this guy is praising what I’ve done, and probably has no idea that his own words over a decade ago almost knocked me totally off-course.

Since this conversation, I’ve been reading a bit more on growth vs. fixed mindsets and how they hamper girls in particular (see here for a good intro). I’ve been able to piece together what might have kept me on track, but I’m by no means finished learning about this, especially as I move into a more mentoring role. Please do share your findings, readings, personal stories, etc. I want these ideas of not being good enough, as defined by someone else, to simply be ex-thoughts.


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