Let's Talk: Being a Woman in STEM

If you’re up to your neck in all the work that comes with any STEM degree, let this be a quick reminder that you’re not alone. Not to mention, women in the field have come a long way. You don’t need to be a history genius to know that in the beginning of the 20th century, the idea of a female scientist or engineer was laughable, but today you might know a few yourself.

Those studying biology might know the heartbreaking story of Rosalind Franklin, who made crucial contributions to the discovery of the structure of DNA, but earned pitiful credit for it thanks to James Watson, Francis Crick and your typical sexism of the 1950s.

However, we’re living in 2016, where the career opportunities for women are vastly different. I’m one of the first members of a generation of women that’s being pushed towards STEM in an effort to close the gap. In seventh grade, all of the junior high girls at my school went on a field trip that involved modules and activities that were designed to spark an interest in STEM in our young minds. During my senior year in high school, my math teacher asked me where I was going to college. When I told him, he encouraged me to study something that involved math, because I was good at it. As far as my personal experience goes, unlike many female scientists and engineers 50+ years ago and many other women today, I personally have been fortunate to never experience sexism in the field of STEM myself, whether it be in the classroom or in the workplace.

While women only make up about 29 percent of the STEM workforce, many are quick to point fingers at direct discrimination, but data suggests otherwise and explains how it’s heavily a matter of career choice. It’s well-established that women do better in school overall; meanwhile, men express a much stronger interest in math and science than women as early as sixth grade, thus resulting in more men pursuing a career involving math and science. Part of this distinction in interests can be argued with a biological perspective, where typically (but of course not always), it has been suggested that males tend to have more efficient spatial reasoning skills, while females tend to excel in the humanities and social sciences due to greater empathetic abilities. On a similar note, these claims are still highly debated topics within the field, and many argue that it’s still wholistically based on social and societal pressures, so it doesn’t hurt to take them with a grain of salt.

On a social scale, pressures pushing certain sexes into certain fields are changing: for example, as the percentage of female physicians increases, so does the percentage of male nurses. Additionally, during the hiring process itself, there is actually a significant amount of evidence that shows women applying for a STEM position often have an advantage over men due to the imbalance of women entering the field. Of course, it would be incredibly wrong to say that discrimination never happens, because numbers can only tell so much of the story. Despite the data, the anecdotal evidence is too overwhelming to ignore. Newspapers, forums and online magazines are teeming with stories that won’t sit well with you. Whether it’s consistently having to defend your position as a student in your field like Alice Zielinski, an engineering student at MIT who happens to be blonde, or brushing sexist comments off like it’s part of your job because it is part of your job, even today there are women in STEM who have to deal with corrosive colleagues and their ancient mindsets.

These contradicting ends of the “Women in STEM” debate bring me to my request – I want to open up the floor to my fellow collegiettes in the field: what have your experiences been like? Whether you want to brag about your awesome coworkers or rant about your ignorant classmates, Her Campus Minnesota wants to hear your thoughts and stories – positive or negative – which you can send to us at [email protected].

Now, get back to studying!