Girls and Boys, Broad and Narrow

I just finished helping out a friend of mine in her computer science assignment. In fact, she didn’t need help, and I don’t understand why she asked. Her code was slick.

We’re both immigrants, albeit from different countries, and we both arrived in English Canada at the age of 13. We’re both in our final year of an undergraduate degree in Neuroscience, we both used to be pre-meds, and we both have a secret passion for the hard sciences: math, physics, computer science. We both regret not pursuing this passion, and we’re both trying to figure out why we chose biology, a ‘soft’ science.

It’s hard to tease out gender from culture from the pressure to perform imposed on all immigrants. We tried to go back in time and sort it out, step by step.

In Canadian high schools, the word ‘interdisciplinary’ is being stressed over and over. Unlike in our home countries, there is a pressure not only to be good at math, but to also excel in biology, English literature, and psychology. In my home country, I did well in all courses, but I defined myself by my ability at math. Once I arrived in Canada, teachers shifted my focus to the ‘softer’ subjects. By the time I got to grade 11, I was afraid of taking computer science and physics. These subjects looked so hardcore to me. I almost dropped computer science before attending the first class, but my father put his foot down. “You’re taking computer science, and I don’t buy your BS. Of course you’ll be a good programmer!”

It was my favorite class, ever.

My father insisted I’ll excel at those hard sciences because he was a math and physics major, and he knew I had his mind. I had someone who pushed me, but my friend – her parents never pushed her. As a result, she is taking her first computer science class because it’s required, in her final year. But she loves computer science, and she always knew she loved math.

For some reason, it seems that boys are just not put to this pressure, to be interdisciplinary, and are not subjected to the aversion to math that girls are trained to cultivate. I don’t know why and I don’t have the numbers to prove it, but I feel it in my bones.

We were both girls and we were both smart, so everyone around us said: we should become Doctors. To the child of immigrants, Doctor is the Golden Standard, and especially if you’re a girl. Most of all, because it’s a prestigious job, but our parents can also see us in this job because they’re used to this career being 50/50.

I asked my friend what she thinks her parents would have wanted her to be was she a boy, and without a hesitation she said ‘engineer’. Doctors and engineers. The immigrant standard.  Meanwhile, I know that a male version of me would have been an engineer for fact. My brother, who performed just as well as I did in math in high school, is now pursuing a math and physics degree.

So we were heading to medical school and needed a degree that will cover the prerequisites, and we also wanted some prestige, to prove ourselves as immigrants. So we enrolled in Neuroscience, a limited-enrollment degree in McGill. Now we regret it.

After two years and a half into the degree I realized that I am just not passionate about medicine, but more importantly, that I can be passionate about other things. The change of career trajectory made my parents believe I’ve lost my mind, and it required a lot of conversations to convince them that I am better off this way. I am now in my final year and fighting to move to a more quantitative, analytical field. I know it’s not the end of the world and that I’m still young, but I’m angry at myself for spending 4 years of my life doing something I felt meh about, instead of finding a passion first and then pursuing it.

So here are two factors that went into my choices, that I wish I realized earlier:

The first, is the idea that passion is taught. When I first chose what I wanted to do, I very consciously picked up ‘Grit’ by Angela Duckworth and learned about the steps to becoming specialized and committing to one thing. I think that Canadian schools are teaching students about interdisciplinarity and stress well-roundedness for good reasons: specializing as early as high school is not a good choice, and for most people, being well-rounded is good. But I think this indoctrination is overwhelmingly directed at girls, and I think it prevents them from searching for and fostering a passion.

Another part, is that fostering a passion is a privilege. As immigrants, we weren’t told to follow our dreams, we were told to prove ourselves. As a result, we pursued a career rather than a personal interest. After three years in university I am finally letting myself develop a passion for science for the first time, for the pursuit of knowledge itself.I’ve been saying I should have been doing math and computer science double major for 2 years now. I would have enjoyed these courses more, but I knew that my grades would have been lower, so I remained in neuroscience so that I could have the GPA that will allow me to go to medical school.

You will so often see men who study a narrow subject, and there seems to be more social acceptance for specialization in men. There is more leniency if a boy has a limited vocabulary and dysfunctional social skills, but is especially good at something; think of the Insufferable Genius Trope: how often have you seen it on a women?

I don’t think women are pushed to develop and pursue a passion; I think women are encouraged to be jacks of all trades; to be dilettantes.

I am now on the cusp of my education: I managed to remain unspecialized for 4 years of interdisciplinary education in Neuroscience.  I want to specialize, I want to master something. And I want it to be a hard science.


By Noga


Photo by Irvan Smith on Unsplash

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash




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