Let's talk about the F-word...
Updated: Feb 4
I've been thinking a lot about failure and our fear of it. What that word means, how it shapes us, and what it ultimately means for who and what we become in life. Our perception of failure can be a driving factor to succeed or what stops us dead in our tracks. We need a better relationship with failure – in our schools, our jobs, and our lives.
What does this have to do with Women in STEM? A lot! Girls, who ultimately become women, are afraid of failure in general. It could be any number of things: scared of looking imperfect; worried about being not being smart enough; concerned about being too geeky or too tall; or feeling pressured to live up to someone's standards. There are an incredible number of standards to live up to. It is no surprise that failure in STEM is just another thing to add to the list of potential reasons why women are M.I.A in STEM. But what if we stopped being afraid of that dirty 'F' word - failure? What if we stopped seeing failure as, well, a fail? In my (newly) enlightened mind, it needs to be embraced for its qualities.
I want to think of failure as:
A checkpoint to what you really want,
A journey to mastery and;
A proof of courage.
I feel like if I were to say to someone, "Hey, want to try something that will help you learn about what you really want, help you to become proficient, and prove that you are courageous?" that person would be all over it. If I said, "Hey, wanna fail?" I'd probably end up with a raised eyebrow and a dirty look (or a sentence including a different F word...).
So, let's apply this to women in STEM.
A checkpoint to what you really want: What you really, really want.
Being great at something is usually filled with many milestones to becoming great at it. For example, I have been talking about being in a band for almost 20 years. I taught myself to play the guitar, but only by reading chords, not the tablature. I say I play, but if I'm honest, I only play once every six months to a year, when I'm bored. Do I want to be in a band? Probably not. I don't put the work in required to do it, because when the chords get difficult, I stop playing or find a simpler one to use. This failure to learn the more complicated chords, to learn to read music, or let anyone hear me play, has shown me that I don't really, really want to be in a band. I just like the idea of it. The same works for women in STEM. If you aren't willing to put in the work, then that's a fail that shows you don't really want to want it. However, if you have an intrinsic motivation to keep working at it despite failure, then that's a positive fail. With me, science is the perfect example. Every single class I completed was incredibly challenging, but I kept working at it because it was what I really, really wanted. I didn't see my failure to get things done quickly as a I-can't-do-this situation, but a I-can't-do-this-YET situation. Viewing failures like this will help you learn what you really, really want, and not that you just suck at whatever it is.
Tia & failure 1 - Quitting 0
A journey to mastery
Learning STEM, in both content and skills, is tricky. When I took my first classes in science, I was continually emailing my professors because I always felt lost. Here's an excerpt from an email I sent my professor:
"I have been watching videos and drawing out diagrams and going back over our readings and I cannot, for the life of me, figure out what I am doing with the three Mendelian problems. I can't wrap my mind around it, despite watching now four different videos on Punnett Squares. I feel like I get the concept but can't make that bridge to actually solving this issue. Can you tell me if I'm on the right track? Or, do you have any other reading or sources that might help me figure out the answers to these questions? I am so stuck!"
If I would have seen this as a journey to mastery, I think I wouldn't have felt so panicked and that email may not have had so many words (I cut out a lot). Here, failure was again a positive thing – my teacher (calmly) emailed me back and helped me sort through it, and it turned out I did understand it. I just needed some help putting together all the pieces.
I passed this class with flying colours; the issue was that I wasn't an expert yet, and that's okay! Otherwise, what would be the point of learning if I already knew the answer?
Proof of courage
When a person looks back and reflects on their accomplishments, despite failures, the resulting feeling is usually pride. Regardless of my crushing lack of confidence, the panicked emails, and the hours pouring over single chapters of a book, I was able to be successful in the end. And I did more than succeed. I excelled and went from a "Cs and Ds get degrees" approach to school to 'how did I lose 1 point in one class in two years!? I'm suing!' I felt powerful having done so well. Every time I tell someone that I am a high school French immersion teacher turned elementary STEM and SDG teacher and leader, I feel a twinge of pride. That was never something that I ever thought I could do. STEM does that to you because it isn't easy, so the failures seem so much rosier when looking back. They'll make you into a new you, or in my case, gave me a new lens with which to see the world. At the time, I wasn't confident in what was possible, and if I had given into the failures, I wouldn't have the courage to be a woman in STEM.
Unsurprisingly, writing this article was terrific for deconstructing my feelings around failure. The "F" word is a must to grow your passion and drive. As a teacher, I want to impart what I have learned to my students, to help them reframe failure. As a woman who took on STEM later in life, I want to share this experience with other women to take on whatever challenges that lie ahead of them, staring failure in the face. This journey will help us to get to know ourselves, create in us experts in our fields, and prove to ourselves that we are the courageous women we want to be. So, if failures are crucial to moving along the path to personal greatness, then we need to make failure our best friend.
STEM Editor, Tia Luker-Putra
Tia is a Canadian high school French language turned elementary science teacher of 13 years, living in Shanghai, China. She is passionate about working with teachers and students to help improve curriculum, especially science. She also has a love for the Sustainability Development Goals of the UN and teaching students about them. She believe it is important to develop empathy in students and connect them with the world around them, and solving the world's biggest problems is a great way to do it! Tia loves to travel, be outside, share her experiences on Twitter, and hang out with her wife and their cat, Kimchi.
Contact Tia about a STEM blog you'd like to write - firstname.lastname@example.org