Opinion | I never forget my gender as a woman in STEM: Academia

Opinion by Rebecca Wang
Jan. 23, 2022, 8:53 p.m.

In my senior year of high school, when I chose to major in engineering after many months of wavering, I knew I had signed myself up for at least four years of intense study. Studying all night for the physics courses I didn’t care much about, but were the prerequisites to my actual engineering courses; barely passing exams and being saved by the curve over and over again; staring at assignments on new concepts when I couldn’t even understand what the question was asking these were all scenarios I had considered and accepted. But what I had failed to realize was that I’d be met with a barrier even before this stage. In oversized, overwhelmingly male-dominated classrooms, I was scared to raise my hand, scared to make mistakes, scared to look like I had less knowledge than my male counterparts. They instead enjoyed those privileges like rights, and thus accumulated more gains from their educational experience than women. 

While it’s become increasingly common knowledge that female students do just as well and sometimes better than male students in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) subjects, and that enrollment in secondary education has mostly evened out among these genders, STEM equality for females generally ends here. Even with these statistics, females feel the pressure to prove themselves to males in STEM fields, and the fact that boys think boys are smarter than girls in science classes doesn’t help. For women who feel these microaggressions in the classroom, realizing their full potential and experiencing the same rewards as males in the same major is incredibly difficult from the start. The burden of knowing that we must prove ourselves causes us to fear making mistakes, because, as student Olivia Li at the University of Wisconsin articulated, “people could use that as an example that women aren’t capable.” Whether the stigma is true that women in male-dominated majors are less capable than men, the undeniably large percentage of women who believe this myth results in unfair disadvantages from the beginning of our education. Even as someone who felt this stigma considerably less during undergrad amongst my (completely male) study group who luckily were my friends as well, I still kept a low profile and was continually anxious in classes, labs and discussions away from them, causing me to now realize the learning I had missed out on. 

Unable to speak as freely as I was used to, I came to realize over the years that I was subconsciously choosing to sit next to female students, working with females during group projects and befriending female students in my major. I learned best through collaboration and discussion, and as I was most comfortable doing this around other women, my subconscious behavior turned conscious. Toward the end of undergrad, I had really embraced this conscious choice of partner. I had turned into the “everything’s easier this way” person. My go-to choices of study collaborators and project partners were female. I could say whatever I wanted and make whatever mistakes out of my control and know that these holes in my knowledge were not attributed to my gender. Only when I was around other females did I have zero anxieties about what I chose to wear and how I presented myself, and their implications on how well I was able to contribute and grind out the assignment of that study session. Even with TAs and professors, where the barrier of professionalism diminished some of these feelings, I still felt more comfortable with women; I would choose the lab sections and office hours held by female TAs and the classes taught by female professors. Although there is nothing wrong with preferring to work with women, the fact that this choice was driven by the pressure I felt when working with male engineering students felt wrong and unfair; frankly, the subtle lack of equal access to these resources (every single person in the room) was a loud declaration that I was not learning the same things my male counterparts were, despite taking courses in the same classroom.

Women consciously choosing to work with other women in this field is a shared sentiment. Even girls who have rarely felt underestimated by male classmates may still prefer to work with other women in class, for reasons including that other women seem to be more accepting of mistakes. Although this was a solution to the ultimately unfair discomfort I felt due to the lopsided gender ratio of my major, it wasn’t really a solution, because the number of female students in my classes was decreasing as I progressed further into the degree. Of all STEM students, women are less likely to graduate on time or stick with the degree than men. Of all the degrees awarded to women, only 32% of these were in STEM fields. These facts, coupled with diminishing class sizes towards the end of my degree, caused my options for a study buddy to increasingly hover around the lower single digits. 

Although we’ve come a long way in closing the gender gap in the classroom, it’s not enough. The spillage of this problem into industry perpetuates this cycle, and while progress towards gender equality was enthusiastic at the beginning of the century, the end of the 2010s, especially with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, has stunted the progress towards gender equality. In order to achieve gender equality in the real world, policies and changes need to be made on a vast front, from the beginning of formal education to all organization levels of home, academia, industry and society.

Rebecca Wang '22 is one of Vol. 260's columnists for the Opinions section. She is a graduate student studying aeronautical & astronautical engineering. A Texas native, she enjoys reading, frisbee, and spending time with friends. Contact her at [email protected].

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