Don’t listen to the dissenting voices, just carry on regardless
Recently, the New York Times magazine carried an article titled, Why are there still so few women in science?
The piece, which attracted plenty of attention and more than 1,000 comments to its online version, posited that the reason women don’t excel in the sciences is because they aren’t encouraged enough and they lack the self-confidence to forge ahead on their own.
It was an unsettling conclusion. It bothered me because my 16-year-old daughter wants to go into the sciences. How could I, as a parent, improve her odds in that world?
My first thought was to discount the piece entirely.
There are complex reasons that explain why women don’t thrive in certain fields, including the sciences.
In India, for instance, women form less than 30 per cent of the workforce. Scores of women professionals freely admit to being tired of “whining” about this shameful statistic and this self-perpetuating stereotype.
But it doesn’t present the entire picture.
In layered cultures, such as in the East, women may appear traditional but often think about things in the most counterintuitive way.
For example, my mother is afraid of travelling alone by plane but she is not afraid of death. Go figure.
The only way forward, in my view, has to do with how you educate and raise your children.
With this in mind, I have come up with a few observations. Call them rules if you like.
Firstly, my advice is to teach your children to deflect criticism.
This is a key skill because, like it or not, they are going to get criticised. We are often overly sensitive to criticism and the best thing a parent can tell their children is to ignore those dissenting and harmful voices.
When a physics professor is sarcastic, when a boss shreds our assignment, my instinct is to think all of the following: “I suck at this; he hates me; I have no future in this field.” Instead, we need to teach our children to learn how to reframe the situation. Maybe your critic is simply just having a bad day.
Secondly, when your boss doubts your competence, plough ahead. When your professor suggests that you take a lesser course load, ignore him or her and keep going. Make it a habit to ignore the voices of doubt.
This may seem like a big hurdle to jump at first, but once you start regularly ignoring them and doing your own thing, you will gain confidence. Yours is the only voice you’ll trust after a while.
Thirdly, take small steps. Building confidence is a long journey.
You will not cover all the ground overnight. The trick is not to expect that your offspring will turn into assertive, confident superstars immediately. It takes time.
Your children will stumble and fall and, in turn, will learn to pick themselves up. Your job is to be there to support them and cushion their failures.
Fourthly, single sex schools can help, or at least they can in my experience. For my own part, I went to Mount Holyoke, a women’s college in Massachusetts. Some studies have shown that women’s colleges have an advantage.
Finally, toughen up. This is something that boys have heard all their lives. Maybe it is time girls heard that phrase too.
As the American economist Larry Summers controversially stated, women do fall off the career ladder. Why that happens is open to debate and will take a long time to resolve.
There are two ways to approach it: one is to change the system, which we are all, in our own ways, attempting to do. The second approach is to change yourself. Change your thoughts and you can change the world.
After all, the only person that you have left to work with is the individual: whether it is your child, your spouse or yourself. Whoever it is, make it count.
Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir
Updated: October 8, 2013 04:00 AM