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  • Writer's pictureLou Matthews

My "Hidden" STEM Shame - Cassandra's Story

"I left her office feeling nothing but shame because of my gender. No one encouraged me in STEM. I was seen as just a black girl who happened to outperform her peers." - 'Cassandra'


[model photo; Actual name changed to protect identity]. No story has been more impactful on me than Cassandra's story - number 11 on my personal quest to hear one thousand stories from the people in my communities. Cassandra just launched her international company, a brilliant new start up which I am convinced is going to be a huge success. As we talked about her company and a mathematics initiative in Haiti we were both interested in, the conversation, not surprisingly, turned to her memories with mathematics and science. I was used to this. No matter where I go, a revelation of what I do in mathematics inevitably leads to wholesale sharing of the kinds of personalized, even traumatizing experiences with the math/science pipeline. What followed was what I chalk up as an all too common account for communities of color.

Cassandra recounted, "I loved math and excelled without effort...[my] SAT scores were high only because of math." Cassandra was okay to stop there until I asked why she didn't continue in Mathematics or STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). Her next response was even more telling: "No one modeled an example for me which would've made a difference in my educational career. " She pointed to the lack of role models. Role models are critical because they can concretize clear pathways and possibilities. "If I could've pointed to a major success story of a black woman in STEM, I would've had the confidence to push back and not give up." I sympathized because I remember finishing my first-year math professor remarking that maybe I wasn't "cut out for this" and to change majors.

According to the National Science Foundation the participation of women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in science and engineering are as follows: Engineering: 3.1%. Physical Sciences: 6.5%. Mathematics: 5.4%. Computer Science: 4.8%. That is, one out of every 20 minority pesons pursues mathematics in college. Just think, how many people you know who have pursued mathematics. In my college, I was the only Black mathematics major for most of my college career.

Now we know something is wrong with the way in which the profession retains people, of any persuasion. According to a recent study, more than half of all initial mathematics majors end up choosing another major. Add in barriers afforded to race and gender and the picture becomes clear. Cassandra's story revealed this. She stated,

I declared math as my major in undergrad college applications. A university in Boston invited me for an interview. The admissions dean was a woman - I sat in her beautiful office, nice leather chair, and she said without apology that if I were a male applicant she would've accepted the presentation of my application.

You probably noticed how she described the physical details of the room, a good indicator of the still-powerful feelings Cassandra possessed about her exclusion.

In the end, she said, if I placed my hand over your name and gender, I would've assumed you were a male applicant. As a female, we can't accept this. we want you to apply again next year after you've proven your strengths in humanities. she said this even though my major was declared in MATH!

Defiantly, she finally releases, "I left her office feeling nothing but shame because of my gender. No one encouraged me in STEM. I was seen as just a black girl who happened to outperform her peers."

The traumatic memory from Cassandra's past, unfortunately isn't unique.. I am bombarded almost daily with theses stories from so many of my friends, family and colleagues. This uneven exchange within the mathematical sciences pipeline, and its gatekeepers - schools, colleges, careers - is played out every day in my world. Yesterday, it was my Ghanaian-American Uber driver in DC who lamented his one-size-fits-all teaching that killed his opportunity or Stan, my former undergraduate, student (now working on his PHD), who was tracked (along with countless African Americans) in the South into non-college pointing, remedial math even though he wanted to attend college. The unwritten rules of math and science exclusion and promotion have lasting generational in communities of color are swifter and longer lasting.

Cassandra's story would not end there. After completing an international MBA with honors and a successful early career in communications and business strategy, Cassandra led out in several STEM projects in the northeast and is interested in possible STEM in her ethic homeland of Haiti in the future.

I suspect your mind has wandered reading this, and you have already started thinking about your own stories. When we give voice to our own memories and experiences in mathematics, we challenge the traditional status quo and create a wave of inspiration and hope to people of all ages. So, I ask: What were your math experiences like? Who inspired - or uninspired you? What was the outcome?

Take the #ourmathematics challenge. Share your memories in comments sections below or on social media with the hashtag, #ourmathematics. #ourmathematics is about giving voice to hope and inspiration in mathematics, STEM and education.

You can follow Dr. Lou at @drloumatthews and @weinspiremath on twitter.

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