In 2018, The New York Times published a piece covering women professionals in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) at the 2018 Global Women’s Forum in Paris. Two days later, an op-ed by an eighth-grader as a letter to the editor expressed her appreciation for the piece, but also her concern about the diminishing number of female role models in STEM disciplines.
As a graduate student studying in STEM fields, the gender disparity in STEM is not new to me. Even as an undergraduate, I had been used to seeing more men in a room than women. The undergraduate class of engineers in my major started out with approximately 18% female enrollment, and at the end of four years reported 21.2% female graduates. In graduate school, my incoming engineering major class was 20% female. Even so, I still found myself seemingly able to cope and overcome the difficulties of this gender imbalance within the classroom.
Unfortunately, my immunity was short-lived. During an engineering internship at a space technology company last summer, at the first staff meeting of my team, I was the only woman in the room (out of roughly 27 engineers). With a single-digit percentage of women, such a clear gender imbalance left me feeling as though I didn’t belong. This feeling only worsened as the internship continued. In the first few days of the internship, I sat in the main building where I saw a handful more women. But over the next week and month, as I was moved to the production floor and, eventually, to the new office built to house roughly a 100 engineers, I could count all the full-time female engineers there on one hand.
I realized that I was not alone in feeling the effects of gender disparity more in industry compared to academia. Alejandra Estanislao, a software engineer at Google in Paris, sympathizes with this experience as she recalls that her experience in industry was much more “lonely” than her experience in academia.
But where do the women go? What experiences do we all collectively face, as an already scant group, in our transition from academia to industry? After all, our training in school ultimately aims to prepare us for the workplace. Is it our own choice, or external factors influencing this choice, that leads women to disappear? Is our choice really even our choice?
In 2015, a study out of the University of Vermont reiterated that, although some suggest women choose not to pursue careers in STEM because of a lack of interest, extensive evidence indicates that women are socialized away from STEM; in other words, sexism makes it difficult for women to pursue their careers of interest. Lower salaries compared to those of men in similar roles, fewer advancement prospects and family matters are common reasons — but with the lack of representation and its impact on the treatment of women, women increasingly choose to exit their STEM careers, while some join non-STEM fields from the beginning.
I wasn’t surprised by the conclusions of these studies. In school, being different was solvable — the less extreme gender distribution and slightly better representation of more senior female academics masked how glaringly out of place I felt; at work, being different was paralyzing. In addition to worse gender statistics in the workplace, an added factor was that success in the classroom usually meant a good letter grade, produced from (mostly) objective evaluation — homework, quizzes, exams — and was relatively low stakes. As you get older, however, your academic successes hold much less influence over your professional successes. This is not the case at work, when factors affecting your livelihood are muddied by subjectivity and the biases of how your managers view your potential.
The production floor at my internship was relatively gender-homogeneous, and I often felt out of character. And for the first time in my life, this subjective, “out of place” feeling had the potential to influence my performance, my success and my livelihood. When I joined in on my male desk-mates’ banter — a subtle currency that afforded you better seats in the professional hierarchy at the workplace — I was entirely confused about how I was supposed to be treated there: Should I have accepted different treatment because I was fundamentally different, even if it was to my benefit? Or should I have demanded indifference, and strived to get any credit by establishing that I could do a “man’s job”?
Experiences throughout the internship did not bring me clarity. About three weeks in, I stopped by the production floor and asked for a box-cutter to strip some fiberglass-insulated wires. A technician pulled out a pocket knife and handed it to me. Standing in front of them, I failed to nonchalantly and coolly unfold the knife within the first five seconds of receiving it, which generated some laughter from the surrounding technicians. I was grateful to the technician from whom I borrowed the knife for quickly showing me how to “work it” and pretended to laugh with the other technicians at my fumbling. But as soon as I turned away, I felt angry. Angry at myself for being so stupid, for being “such a girl.” (I had no idea I was gaslighting myself at the time.) But how could I have expected myself to conform to this know-how, when pocket knives are written in mainstream media as traditionally male-possessed items? I wasn’t “rough around the edges” in the same way Boy Scouts have been praised for (which associates this trait blatantly as nominally male), and I felt I was viewed as less qualified because of it.
This story describes only one feeling among many that surfaced this summer. I cannot discount the role my supportive team members played in the successes of my projects that summer, but the extreme attention I placed on crafting my demeanor was certainly strategic, too, because I knew I walked a fine line between authority and respect at the workplace.
After experiencing firsthand the sheer amount of male domination in industry, I couldn’t help but feel a desire to leave the field. In my second year of graduate school, I still needed more senior and successful female STEM professional role models. To stay and battle centuries’ worth of disadvantages seemed a dismal prospect from the standpoint of my novice career. To exit STEM and be considered as “adding to the problem”, or to stay and suffer the unequal treatment — there was no choice I could make to win. Such a quandary begs the question: What can our society do to effectively increase the number of women in STEM fields, despite statistics that continue to reflect the problem of unequal representation, even as companies and institutions modify internal policies? We need the answer now more than ever.