My junior year of high school, I signed up to take an entry-level physics class.
The class began with an innocent-sounding enough “syllabus day,” in which the professor went through his expectations for the class, testing policies, office hours, et al. (This was a high school AP class, but the teacher preferred to be called "professor" because of his degree.)
As he outlined his office hours, the professor announced to the class: “Ladies, if you need to come in for extra help more often, don’t be ashamed, it’s just that I’ve found that physics is easier for the boys.”
He proceeded to explain that, in his vast teaching experience, he’d realized that women just can’t conceptualize difficult scientific concepts in the same way men can, and that he’s proud of us for not letting our biological setback stop us from signing up for his class.
I was speechless. I wanted to angry cry. Until then, I was generally aware of gender inequality as a vague problem, but in my immense privilege, had never witnessed such an act of misogyny firsthand.
I was floored that he could foster such a hostile, misogynistic environment on the very first day of class. We hadn’t even started covering real content yet, and he’d already managed to betray his lack of faith in the class’s entire female population.
That first day set the tone for the rest of the year. The professor continued to make sexist off-the-cuff remarks on the daily, to the effect of “So and so needs a cute guy to help her figure out how to graph that derivative.”
On a really bad day, he would make comments that highlighted his misogynistic outlook on other facets of life: “I sent my wife to her room last night because she was a bad girl who wouldn’t do the dishes.”
Physics class consistently made me angry. Partially, I was mad that he could be so ignorant with impunity. But even more so, I was mad that I couldn’t prove him wrong.
For reasons entirely unrelated to my gender, I struggled in the class. I wanted to be the badass female protagonist who taught the mean professor a lesson by acing his class, but physics was a real challenge for me. Maybe it was because he couldn’t teach, or maybe I was just bad at science—but I hope that most anyone would agree that my difficulty in the class had nothing to do with my second X chromosome.
My inability to prove his sexist assertions wrong made me feel terrible and inadequate, and no good professor should ever make their students feel that way.
I shouldn’t have had to “prove” anything to him: It’s well-established that women are as competent as anyone in the sciences (and all the other things). Despite being aware of this fact, I felt like the legitimacy of all the world’s female STEM professionals relied on my success in the class.
Words can hardly express the frustration and helplessness that I felt as I spent the rest of the semester hating myself for being unable to disprove my professor’s sexist assumptions.
A classroom environment that attempts to quantify success based on biological sex is a toxic environment for everyone — cisgender, trans and nonbinary students alike. It’s inconceivable to me that a professor could, in good conscience, announce that he held any population of students in lower regard than others.
By the end of the semester, I was so frustrated with the class and myself that I resolved never to take another Physics class.
Beyond just irritating me, these biases have real, tangible effects on women in the sciences. Even as women represent an increasing share of college graduates and members of the workforce, they are disproportionately underrepresented in STEM careers. Only about a quarter of professionals working in mathematical sciences—like physics—are women.
These disparities are exacerbated by teachers like mine, who make clear their lack of confidence in female students. It’s impossible to imagine women achieving parity under conditions where they’re immediately viewed at less competent than their male counterparts.
We need teachers who will actively fight to change these biases—not teachers who continue to enforce them.