As a junior Neuroscience & Behavior major, I’ve gone through many daily struggles that all STEM majors experience at one point or another during their collegiate career. However, as a woman, there are definitely more speed bumps in the path of obtaining a Bachelor of Science degree that I never saw coming as a freshman. I wish I had someone who would’ve told me that there are obstacles you are going to face that men won’t necessarily experience due to their gender. I’m going to give you the advice I wish I heard as a freshman, so all you freshman STEM majors won’t be blindsided when you run into the subliminal sexism within the STEM field:
1) You are going to be questioned, a lot.
As a woman in the STEM field, whenever you answer a question or discuss a topic, men will, without fail, question your thinking and reasoning. “Are you sure?” “I wouldn’t have done it that way.” “Let me compare your answer to mine.” Those are just a few quotes from my male classmates when I presented a solution to a problem or engaged in a discussion of a STEM topic. When this happens to you, and I can almost guarantee it will, be persistent. Do not question yourself just because someone else questions you. You very may well be wrong, but that’s okay! No one learns without making mistakes, but it’s better to be confident in your answers and thoughts than to change them at the first sign of apprehension. A few ways to respond to these comments include, “Yes I’m sure, I checked it multiple times,” “Well I didn’t do it your way because your way is wrong,” and “I don’t need you to check my answers, I’m confident they’re correct.” Assert your confidence with a hint of sass ;)
2) You are going to be called derogatory names.
I will never forget my sophomore year, one of my male classmates in my biology lab told me to stick to “cooking and cleaning” because I said I wanted to take charge of a particular aspect of our lab assignment. I stood in utter shock because I had never been treated with such blatant sexism. I handled the situation by simply doing the part of the experiment that I wanted to do anyways. I pipetted the solutions into their designated tubes without saying a single word in response to his derogatory comment. He saw me working and decided to redo what I had already done in a rushed manner (we were near the end of lab) because he didn’t “trust my work.” Can you guess whose work produced better results? I’ll give you a hint, it’s the person who took their time doing their work. The advice I can give you from this situation is do not let the comments you’ll get from men kill your motivation to achieve your goals. If STEM interests you, and you like what you’re doing, don’t let stupid comments ruin that for you. Overcome them by pushing for greatness.
3) The work is going to be hard.
The workload is extremely hard, I’m not going to lie to you. If you have to take organic chemistry, good luck sister. But just because you are struggling does not mean you are not cut out for STEM. Half the courses you take in undergrad won’t even be used in whatever job you land post-grad (unless you’re a chemist or something related, and in that case, I’ll pray for you). Your male classmates may see you struggle and target your weaknesses to pick on you and make them appear like they’re above you in some way. The reality of this situation is that they are probably struggling just as much as you but just don’t want to admit it. Keep this in mind if they do start to make fun of you; keep chuggin’ along through that orgo homework. You got this!!
4) Find a someone older (male or female) who is also in STEM that respects you.
This “older” figure may be your professor, your TA, your advisor, or even an upperclassman who is in the same major/a related major. This person doesn’t have to be a woman (although it may help because you can chat about annoying men). There are respectful men in the STEM field, believe it or not. You just have to search for them. For me personally, I have two “older” figures that I know I can go to with any questions, and both of them happen to be my male Neuroscience professors. They treat all their students equally and do not question my intelligence when I discuss things with them or answer their homework questions. Both have provided me with a surplus of career and life advice for whichI am extremely thankful. They also, without knowing it, have helped me stay in the STEM field after I was just about to give up because of frustration from remarks from classmates, stress, and excessive workload. These older figures are so important to have in your college career, and the sooner you find them, they better your college experience will be.
Remember that all this aggression toward female STEM majors is primarily because our men classmates/colleagues are threatened by us. Use that as motivation to strive above them and crush their toxic masculinity, fragile egos, and internalized misogyny. I believe in you, and every other female in STEM believes in you too.