Sexism: How We Carry Ourselves

By Marie Allred - September 19, 2018

The highest level and often hardest class that exists in many American high schools is Physics C. This is the class where the students at the top of the top go. As a high school senior, I took this class. I wasn’t the cream of the crop, however. I was smart, true. I was an extremely hard-worker and when I was first introduced to physics in my junior year I really enjoyed the course. So that’s how I ended up there. My teacher was an incredibly smart man, and he knew physics like he knew the back of his hand. He was a great lecturer and teacher and enjoyed teaching even though he had double majors in physics and mathematics with which he could have gotten a much higher paying job.

Now, my Physics C class was about 80% men and 20% women, and even though our teacher really was a great man, he had this tendency that only became apparent to me once it was pointed out. He was sexist. It wasn’t like he was going around cursing at us or throwing out slurs, it was a very subtle kind of sexism. He would tease us, but it wasn’t labeled as sexist because he was always teasing and that was his personality. Over time though I started to notice things. Once a friend of mine got into an argument with a boy in the class after the boy said, “the girls here just aren’t as good at physics as the guys here.” Our teacher was almost egging on the argument rather than stopping it, and in response to the boy's comment he simply shrugged and said, “I didn’t say it.” That moment was really when it began to click for me.

In class, some of the girls took longer to understand things but they always got it eventually and were hard-workers. Our teacher’s teasing of all the women in the class for being stupid wasn’t inherently bad, but it became too excessive and eventually many of us resolved to no longer ask questions in class for fear of ridicule from all the men in the room.

The worst part about this experience for me was the fact that our teacher’s subtle sexism perpetuated bias in the classroom and made it acceptable for the other men in the class to treat us as lesser than they were. It wasn’t our fault as women that we were being unfairly represented and treated, but it would be our job to either fix it or endure it. Some of us chose to just endure it, and I cannot fault those who did for it. I didn’t want to cause trouble, I just wanted to learn physics. Some of the girls in the class and I decided we would band together and study outside of class, work on our homework together and help each other become better than we could be alone. One of the most important things we realized we had to do, was to portray confidence.

It became about how we carried ourselves, rather than about what the men said or thought. As we did our best to carry our heads high and act like we knew what we were doing the more we really did know what we were doing and the more the men respected us. Instead of standing up and getting angry and giving them more ammunition to claim our dramatism, irrationality, and stupidity we simply made ourselves better through our work and most importantly by carrying ourselves in a way that exuded our own capability and intelligence.

Was it fair that we had to work harder outside of school than the men? No. Was it fair that we couldn’t ask questions because we would be degraded and teased the way the men would never be? No. Was it fair that we were given less credit in everything that we did? No. None of it was fair, but sitting around and being angry because it wasn’t didn’t help us. It didn’t teach us physics, and it certainly didn’t make men respect us more.

My point here is this: it isn’t fair, but it’s not about fair. It’s about how we choose to carry ourselves through it, and it’s about how much stronger, more prepared and more capable we can become when we stop dwelling on the justice of the thing and make our own way because no one else is going to make it for us.

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