Why I Don’t Like Being a “Female Role Model”

I’m happy to help, but I’ll be happiest when the world doesn’t need female role models anymore.

When I was six, I had a furious argument with my best friend. We were playing superheroes, and I said I was going to be Superman. “You can’t be Superman, because you’re a girl,” she retorted. “You have to be Supergirl.” I was indignant and genuinely perplexed. I honestly didn’t understand why being a girl meant I couldn’t be Superman. And it wasn’t just because we were playing make-believe. I distinctly remember believing I could be Superman. I imagined growing up and turning into Superman. I was sure I could grow up and be anything.

Now that I am a woman in the male-dominated profession of mathematics, I see that this sort of belief is not a given among girls and young women. I have female students who tell me that they wanted to be an engineer or an architect, but their parents said that girls “can’t do that.” And yet when I was young I saw no obstacle to doing anything a man could do, even being Superman.

It’s not so much that I particularly believed girls could do anything boys could do; it just didn’t occur to me to think otherwise. One reason for this is that my parents had slightly gender-reversed roles from the traditional ones. My mother worked in the city. She would get up early and commute to work, wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase, and she would get home only just in time for dinner. My father was a doctor and worked much nearer to home with more flexible hours. So he was the one who took us to school, arrived home from work earlier in the evening, did the grocery shopping, and often prepared dinner. When I started kindergarten, I was aware that everyone else had a Mommy dropping them off while I had a Daddy, but it didn’t bother me. I was much more aware of being the sole Asian in a class of white children (this was rural England in the 1980s), especially because the other children talked about it all the time.

It’s possible that being the only Asian in a room full of white people for years prepared me quite well for being the only woman in a room full of men in later life. I stopped noticing being “alien,” as I’ve never really known what it’s like to fit in.

I attended all girls’ schools. With no boys around, there was no peer pressure or expectation that “girls do this” and “boys do that.” Some girls liked playing with My Little Pony at break time; others liked climbing through the copious bushes that surrounded our school. I definitely preferred the bushes. In high school, we had to choose three or four subjects to specialize in (known as A-levels in the UK system). Plenty of girls chose math and science. Thinking back now, it’s funny to imagine a class full of girls who have chosen physics. But at the time, we thought nothing of it.

I have one sister but no brothers, so there was no opportunity for gender divides at home. My sister liked pink; I liked blue. Our aunts and uncles studiously gave us presents coded in pink and blue respectively for years, far longer than our preferences really held. As it happens, we both specialized in math and science.

Our parents are both scientific, which certainly contributed to our scientific inclinations. But my biggest influence was my mother, who casually introduced me to fascinating mathematical ideas when I was very young. She used the language of logic naturally, emphasized the difference between necessary and sufficient conditions, impressed upon us the law of diminishing returns. For me, it was never a question of whether a woman could be good at mathematics. My mother was, and I knew I was.

In a way I did have female role models, as so many of the figures of authority or respect in my life were female. There was my headmistress, in addition to all my teachers in elementary school. There was my piano teacher, who was my most important influence outside my family. There was my older sister, who always achieved great things. And growing up in England, we had a female prime minister and a Queen. It’s not that I wanted to be a head of state or head of a school, but it gave me the general impression that women could do anything.

I had my first inkling that the world may not be so rosy when the head of math at my high school started expressing doubts about my abilities. When I wanted to apply to the University of Cambridge to study math, she suggested I apply to a girls’ college because I might not get in if I had to compete against boys. When I got into a mixed Cambridge college, she warned me that when I got there, I would discover that all the boys were better than me.

This article was originally written by Dr Eugenia Cheng and appeared on Medium on July 7, 2015. You can read the rest of the article on Medium.

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