Helping other women, helping myself, by Amy Prager

One of the most important topics to me in academia and industry is that of gender discrimination. To discuss this problem in the abstract is one thing, however, to actually live through it and have personal experience is quite another. I view this issue through a rare lens, as I am a postoperative transgendered woman.

When I was younger, and assumed to be a cis-gendered male, I let my eyes and ears be my guide to what those around me thought about what the proper role of women and their education should be. My grandparents—on both sides—would actually say things like, “It’s OK for a boy to be bookish or nerdy, but for a girl its very bad, of course.” My mother’s father was actually proud of the fact that he wanted/allowed his daughters to be educated, too, as if this was an unusually progressive attitude for him to take. I remained silent, but I vowed in my mind to investigate further exactly how normative these prejudicial attitudes were when I was older, hoping someday that information would become easier to come by (through a worldwide, interconnected computer system of “webpages,” perhaps?). When I looked at undergraduate colleges, there were still some good universities, most notably Columbia College, that would not admit women. We have come a long way, but in many respects, not nearly far enough.

When I attended university, I took further notice of potentially sexist and other discriminatory attitudes all around me. Some in my family actually said if I did not marry a member of my ethnic group, I would be disowned or worse. These statements are clearly not supportive of an LGBT identity, especially when they were expressed before the legalization of same sex marriage. But these attitudes went far beyond romantic or reproductive relationships—they affected every aspect of my daily life. Dismayed by what I saw happening back “home” and vowing to myself that that place will never be considered my “home” again, I approached my advisor and colleagues about these ideas. My advisor, trying his best to be supportive, told me that, horrifyingly, some women attend college with the goal of obtaining their “MRS degree.” I then queried my female STEM friends and students about their experiences. I was genuinely saddened by what was self-reported. One of my own students lamented that her mother told her she was destined to be a housewife like her and, therefore, did not need an expensive education.  When I tried to intercede on her behalf, I actually got branded as a villain. Tales of parental, familial and societal disapproval were the norm, not the unfortunate rare exception. What was even worse was that the academy, whose very job it was to encourage their students, acted in an even more discouraging fashion. However, I felt more than sadness. I was in disbelief, as I could not have imagined—from my unknowingly privileged vantage point—that such institutionalized discrimination could exist against an entire class, indeed the majority of people on earth. However, all of that was about to change dramatically once I began transitioning.

When I first sought out therapy to help me through my transition, I did not realize that there are religious therapists who believe that their role is to encourage heteronormativity and cis-normativity, and they know that the only way they can do this is by removing the patient (or victim) from other sources of more neutral help. I had my work cut out for me! I had one encounter in my search for a therapist that is amusing in hindsight. A therapist yelled at me that if I did not show up in a business suit, pressed dress shirt, and perfectly tied tie, he would throw me out of his office. His rationale was simple: only these clothing choices would make me at all employable. (He apparently has never been to a tech company office or university campus.) He told me to grow up and get a job, pointing out that he didn’t want to have to pay increased taxes to pay for my welfare my entire life. Oddly enough, he and others like him have inadvertently taught me a great lesson. They made me more sensitive to others’ needs and instilled in me a desire to help.

And it is my need to help others—and especially those who need help strictly because they come from some marginalized group—that has altered the course of my life, my career, and my research. When helping others becomes something you are disrespected and degraded for, you know you know you are dealing with people that have a lot to hide and a lot to lose. These are people that have too much to lose from a fair world, and too much to hide about themselves. As a result of negative experiences, both directed at me personally and those I observed out in the world, my work transitioned from research mathematics and computing to STEM education and, in particular, math education, with a focus on helping women achieve their fullest potential in these fields. In the course of my research and my work in these areas, what I have learned and experienced has been absolutely astounding. I have found that there is a powerful community that uses threats involving educational expenses as leverage to realize their vision for the next generation. It has both encouraged me to continue onward, and it has depressed me so much that I have had difficulty doing exactly that.

I cope and manage to keep going by observing the success stories of my students and mentees. I see the effects on those who have been hurt and those who I am trying to help. Despite the challenges I face on the path I’ve chosen, the positive change I am able to contribute to makes it worthwhile.

Amy Beth Prager is an applied mathematician and computational scientist who has become a STEM Education researcher and passionate advocate for diversity and inclusion, encouraging young women and underrepresented groups in STEM, sharing her love of science and technology to inspire the next generation of scientists and technologists, and people everywhere to embrace learning and education.

In the 20th century, she graduated Johns Hopkins University in applied mathematics and theoretical chemistry, and studied postgraduate level quantum chemistry for 1.5 years beyond her bachelor’s degree, and successfully worked on scientific projects in a wide variety of locations, within Nothern America and Europe.

In the 21st century, her research interests turned towards the disproportionate barriers and resultant income inequality in countries with high education costs such as the USA and UK, that fall on women and underrepresented groups. She entered the doctoral programs in math education and mathematics at Columbia University, featuring additional coursework at Princeton University and IAS, and after becoming ABD at Columbia, completed over a calendar year of post-ABD study at MIT.

She currently devotes herself to these issues in a number of capacities. She serves on the NCWIT Aspirations Team in her native Massachusetts, lectures in mathematics education at Cornell University and other universities in New England, and is an active member and participant of SACNAS, and the Mathematics Alliance. She has served on panels , led discussions, and given keynotes at SWE conferences and similar organizations, and contributed to books and book chapters on encouragement of women and underrepresented groups in STEM.

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