I am the get, or on role models/pressure

31 May

Awhile back I did a post on various podcast recommendations, and I pointed out a recent favorite of mine by an old classmate and her best friend, the get.  Their most recent episode really resonated with me and echoed some issues that I haven’t talked about in years (part 2), so I thought I’d revisit them and talk about why I love this podcast so much.

Two and a half years ago, I wrote this in an email to a professor, referencing an earlier meeting:

Upon reflection I believe that I felt like I was speaking on behalf of all women in a room full of men, a responsibility that I wasn’t prepared for.  It’s like having a discussion about race in a room with one person of color.  It’s a little weird.

Part of Rhiana talks about in ep14 is the pressure she feels as a high-achieving minority, to continuously highly achieve on behalf of that minority group.  Whenever you’re in a group, be it a classroom, a meeting, or a collection of role models (you may not even know you’re in this group!), if you’re a super-minority then you represent that minority to people looking at that group.  Relevant comic:

how_it_works

XKCD: link here

And that sort of pressure can be dangerous-I won’t tell you Rhiana’s story; you can listen for yourself and I’ll tell you my stories instead.  I’ve been incredibly lucky in my path to where I am now, with support since childhood with extra programs essentially designed to get me where I am today.  Rhiana and Ivy had it even “worse” with a Rhodes and a Ford (fancy graduate fellowships).  What do I mean by “worse”?  I mean when you have all this support and have used up all of these resources to lead you to success, you feel even more pressure to succeed.  Success begets success.  Which is often a good thing, but the pressure can be crippling.  Related digression: this movie (that I love and is directed by the Fast and the Furious director Justin Lin) is based on a real life murder that happened at my rival high school, which was also an extremely high achieving high pressure environment.

I’m planning on finishing my Ph.D. next year (spring 2017), so my thoughts have been leading to what’s coming next: do I try to succeed in mathademia, or turn my back on all of these supporters and do something else?  Here are some mission statements of programs that have helped me:

  • MMUF is the centerpiece of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s initiatives to increase diversity in the faculty ranks of institutions of higher learning.
  • The EDGE Program is administered by Morehouse andPomona Colleges with the goal of strengthening the ability of women students to successfully complete PhD programs in the mathematical sciences and place more women in visible leadership roles in the mathematics community.
  • Dedicated to furthering the success of underrepresented students, USTARS seeks to broaden the participation in the mathematical sciences

So those mission statements imply that they gave me funding/programming/mentorship/networks because they want me to become a math professor.  Also, having role models who look like you is extremely important for young people, especially underrepresented groups, to even begin to ideate what success could look like.  This belief, coupled with my experiences, makes me personally feel pressure to become a research mathematician and exist as an example and role model for others: look!  A woman mathematician!  They exist!  I recently saw this sweet video on upworthy and it’s from this program that sends professionals to grade schools:

So being a role model is great!  But defining success for yourself is a key part of being successful, and going with something without examining it is not, in my opinion, drinking life to the lees [which is a goal of my life].

I spoke with Evelyn Lamb, a friend and personal hero, about this tension between living up to expectations and figuring out your own path.  She pointed out, rightly, that she’s far, far more visible now as a math writer than she was as an assistant professor.  So if the goal is to show people that women can do math, she’s reaching the goal much more effectively by going her own way.  I’d be remiss not to mention Erica Klarreich here and promo my math field with her incredible article.

To sum up: despite massive amounts of pressure from your own underrepresented group/your supporters/your funders/your family/anyone, you have to make your own decisions for your own success and happiness.  Maybe you’re incredibly motivated by the idea of being a role model for others, and that’s enough to launch you into whatever career.  I don’t personally feel that way, and I want my kids to see their mother loving her job and actively choosing it.  The goal of being a role model and showing people that women can do math is to encourage young women who might not realize they can become mathematicians that it’s a path available for them.  It’s not to pressure capable young women into some path that I’ve pre-determined as correct or better than whatever choices they’ll make.  Empowerment is not restricting choices, it’s expanding choices.

Last bit: what do I mean when I say “I am the get”?  It’s from the first episode of Ivy and Rhiana’s podcast.  I can’t say it as well as Rhiana can, so here’s her words:

One thing that always stuck out is that she told me that when I walk in there, like, I have to remember that I am the get. I am the thing that they need to have, I’m the thing that they want, and that I am…not a prize, but something to be gotten. I am an asset. […]we want our listeners to always remember that they are the get, that you are an asset, a thing to be gotten! You’re the thing that people want—and it’s so easy to forget that, especially if you’re a woman, especially if you’re a woman of color, especially if you’re a member of the number of marginalized groups in the US. So, we just wanted that to always be a reminder of self-love and of just how fucking awesome you are, all the time.

I’m out!  Maybe baking next week; it’s been a while!

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One Response to “I am the get, or on role models/pressure”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Baking and Math: I am the get, or on role models/pressure – Yen Duong – mathematics matters… - June 15, 2016

    […] I am the get, or on role models/pressure […]

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