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It’s Time to Change the Way We Treat Women in STEM

Two weeks ago in my computer science lab, I was placed into a Zoom breakout room with two male students to work on the lab together. This is perfectly normal, however, every time I tried to speak, I was often talked over or my opinion was questioned. In particular, there was one question that neither of my male cohorts knew the answer to, but I had an answer and supported my answer to the question. And yet, they still were very reluctant to believe that I had the correct answer, but when the class came back together as a group, the TAs revealed that my answer was indeed correct. 

In another situation, my programming partner in this same computer science class- who I didn’t know very well- told me not to “worry my pretty little head about it” when I lamented that I hoped the next assignment wouldn’t be too difficult.

My friend Meg, when asked what she wanted to be when she grew up and responded she wanted to be a surgeon, was asked, “but how will you get a husband?”

In a quantum chemistry discussion lab, an undergraduate male jumped into an explanation by a female graduate assistant in a nationally recognized chemist’s lab and told her she was doing it wrong, when, in fact, she wasn’t. 

It’s small phrases and acts such as these that only reinforce the gender norms that lead us to discredit women in academics – particularly in science.  

I am a woman majoring in math and minoring in computer science. I am often one of less than five women in some of my higher-level STEM classes, particularly in my math courses. I don’t want to discredit all the great and equitable experiences I have had, because I have also had many normal, equal, and respectful experiences regarding being a woman in STEM. That being said, I’ve also had a lot of disparaging experiences solely due to my gender. 

Women make up only 25.8% of computer and mathematical occupations. 1 This fact is built by many factors, but one in particular I want to address is the microaggressions faced in daily life by a woman in STEM. Constantly being questioned or told that you can’t do science because you’re a woman leads many women at all ages to lose confidence in themselves, their abilities, and their answers. When my answer to the problem in my CS lab was questioned so heavily, I began to lose belief in my answer as well. In situations such as these, I notice myself drawing back on my answers, suffixing them with “I might be wrong though” or “I’m not sure.” Not only does this questioning cause women to question themselves, but it creates an environment where a woman in STEM feels that she must be perfect at all times, or else other female students will be questioned even further each time her answer isn’t 100% perfect. Constantly being questioned about how you can be a career woman and still care for your family makes a woman have to explain herself and appear selfish if her top priority isn’t a family or a husband. This should be a woman’s independent decision and she shouldn’t have to explain herself to anyone else. And yet, studies have shown that women in leadership positions are often less respected or thought of differently than their equivalent male counterparts, and these attitudes create disparities because of gender even in levels of success. Assuming that a woman doesn’t know how to do a problem or is doing it wrong is not only sexist but an injustice to the field of science itself. Science thrives on diversity- differing viewpoints and backgrounds lead to far richer solutions and approaches to problems. Women can provide new perspectives and help enrich our scientific world – so excluding them is not only inequitable but also soils the field of science itself. 

Of course, these aren’t issues that can be solved overnight and many of these problems are solidified by hundreds of years of gender stereotypes, normalities, and unconscious biases. This has been (and will be) an ongoing struggle that women face, but I believe that in this era of social reconstruction and evaluation of privilege, we can work towards mitigating gender disparities and examining our rhetoric. We can do better. 

Many times, our male counterparts don’t even realize what they are saying or doing is sexist. They may not be thinking at the time that who they are talking down to is female, or that they may be mansplaining a problem we may already understand. This unconscious bias is the base level of what is setting women apart and creates disparities where women either feel like they can’t succeed or are actually being prevented from succeeding.

Microaggressions make up the fibers of the glass ceiling and push the wage gap farther apart. Science is difficult enough without having to climb extra barriers. If you’re in the STEM field, male or female, I urge you to examine your everyday rhetoric and pull out your phrases that could have negative impacts. Changing the way we talk and address women in STEM is the first step we can take in altering our unconscious biases and leading our society to a more equitable and just place where every gender is set up for success. 

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Mary Muench is a senior at the University of Utah majoring in Mathematics with a minor in Computer Science. She knows too much about coffee and enjoys white-water rafting and hammocking.
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