Women in Science: Get Used to It

Emily Scheerer ’14, computer science, is a CWIT Scholar and Technology Editor for The Retriever Weekly. Abigail Williams ’14, chemical engineering, is the president of the UMBC chapter of the Society of Women Engineers.

Recently, the author of the popular blog “I fucking love science” (with more than 4 million Facebook followers) created a Twitter account and asked readers for suggestions about other scientists with Twitter accounts she could follow. Instead of answers to her question, Elise Andrew (yes, she’s female) got snarky responses expressing surprise that  that she was a woman, and even more shockingly, an attractive woman. Many of her Facebook followers leaped to her defense. Elise Andrew replied with a tweet saying, “EVERY COMMENT on that thread is about how shocking it is that I’m a woman! Is this really 2013?”

Emily reflects

Emily ScheererI believe most male UMBC students, when asked, would say that they’re not sexist about STEM majors, and that they don’t care one way or another whether female students are in their STEM classes. What many don’t realize is that “not caring” or simply ignoring the presence of women in an effort to be accepting is often harmful. That’s a way of not taking responsibility for behavior, such as telling sexually charged jokes, that can make women uncomfortable.

Ultimately, the best way for women to feel comfortable in STEM fields is for more of us to choose STEM majors and create a community of women able to support each other. But the reaction to Elise Andrew’s revelation suggests that we have a lot of work to do before this is likely to happen. Men can help us get there faster by respecting both our capabilities and our differences.

Through the CWIT Scholars and CWIT Affiliates program, women studying STEM are drawn together so they can sign up for classes together and create communities like UMBC’s SWE (Society of Women Engineers) chapter. The “Men in CWIT” community is designed to educate guys on how to advocate with and for these women.

Here’s an example on the power of educating guys. Recently, I attended a conference with several other UMBC students. One of the guys in attendance was complaining that there are no conferences for white males, and said, “I want a conference that we can attend, and no one else, so I can have an edge for an internship.” He was joking, but his joke implied that he thought women and other minorities were getting jobs not because of their talent, but because of their sex or race. In contrast, when I was going through a confidence crisis in regards to my summer internships, one of my CWIT male friends told me that he knew I had the talent and skills, and that he was proud of me for what I had achieved. That kind of attitude goes a long way in helping support women in STEM.

Abigail reflects

Abigail WilliamsAs a woman in STEM, I have to work harder to have my voice heard. I remember being in CHEM 102 Discovery in a group with three guys, two prospective engineers and one interested in neuroscience. Discovery is meant to be a collaborative environment, but I had long since fallen silent because I had quickly realized that my input wasn’t being considered. One day we were working on a problem and the guys were doing it incorrectly, but I knew the right way to do it. I almost didn’t say anything, but I didn’t want to jeopardize my grade on the session. So I piped up. Miraculously, they listened. They looked at each other and said, incredulously, “She’s right.” Miffed, I replied, “She is sitting right here.” This is just one example of many like it. Why were they surprised? It’s because there’s still this gender stereotype: Girls don’t do STEM, so she must not know what she’s talking about. (That said, I know that not all guys subscribe to this stereotype.)

The page “I fucking love science” has probably benefited from the anonymity of the author. If her gender had been clearly stated from the get-go, I doubt she would have as many followers as she does. “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” they would have said. “Why should I follow her?”

It’s very disheartening to have someone doubt my abilities and refuse to hear what I have to say solely because I’m female. I think to myself, “What happens when I get a job? Will anyone listen to me?” Cue the panic attack.

How do we fix this? Honestly, the best thing I can think of is: Listen! I’ve always felt that disagreements and misguided stereotypes can be resolved by everyone just truly listening to each other. Don’t automatically discount her opinion. Hear her out and take what she’s saying seriously. What is there to lose by doing so? And girls, I know it’s hard, but you have to keep speaking up. We love science (and technology and engineering and math)! There’s nothing wrong with that. Just keep talking and, eventually, someone will listen.

Contact the authors: Emily Scheerer at semily1@umbc.edu, and Abigail Williams at abigail6@umbc.edu.

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Comments

  1. Jess Myers says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your experiences!

    • Lisa Gray says:

      I second Jess’ statement. Thank you both! I’m grateful for your talent, skills, courage and tenacity. The STEM world is and will be better for it. Your experiences are all valid because they are your experiences – period.

  2. I have a few comments to go along with this.

    @ Emily
    There are a lot of scholarships, internships, and evening hiring processes that give women/minorities the advantage. I believe a lot of this is due to the requirement to employ a “diverse” group of people. If a company only hired white men than they would be criticized, even if every time they hired, the white male had a better resume/performance/interview/etc than another person who so happened to be female, or not white, or not a majority race. I believe that having regulations and minority only scholarships only increases the separation between race/gender/etc.

    @ Abigail
    While there are so many stories about the majority race/gender/etc excluding the minorities, I rarely experience this. I believe that those who see the separation are those who believe we are different because of the body we are born into. I take your story about working with the guys and having the right answer as a result of you going into the situation believing you are different. I have done this before too, not necessarily in science but across the board. You don’t try to go into a situation thinking you are different or special but subconsciously the idea is probably there. Otherwise you most likely would not even remember who was in you group and that you were the only female. And don’t worry about getting a job and being heard, if you are part of a team everyone wants as much as they can get out of you for the team to succeed and their job to be easier.

    I am a white, female, Baltimore born PhD student in Physics working with a research team. I work with all men. There is no female that I work with on a regular basis. Some of my team members are white, some Asian, some European, etc. I never feel stereotyped. Sometimes I might say something that doesn’t make sense, or something wrong, but then again who hasn’t done that before. I am also responsible for my own work. People need what I produce. I may ask someone for help as someone may ask me for help.

    Growing up I heard that girls don’t usually do science and math but I liked it too much for that to bother me. I sort of pushed that idea aside and said “oh whatever, that’s nonsense, science is fun!” When working with other people, as long as you all have love for the project at hand, the body you are born into does not matter. You don’t even notice. You don’t heard accents, see age, see gender, see race, see each others education. You just get the job done because that is what you have in common. You see similarities and differences only in ideas.

    • Abigail says:

      Thanks for your comment! I’m glad that you don’t experience it – it’s just happened fairly frequently to me. I don’t normally spare a thought to any “separation” but if others’ actions draw my attention to it, it’s harder to ignore. I tried to be a part of the team, but they wouldn’t let me.

      When I was growing up, doing STEM was almost expected of me by my parents (particularly my father). I took to it very naturally and I loved it very much. I developed an early liking for chemistry that has, obviously, stayed with me through the years. The fact that most of my female friends didn’t share this interest and a lot of my male friends were surprised that I liked STEM did not deter me. But just because it didn’t bother me doesn’t mean that the stereotype doesn’t exist.

      What’s interesting is that in most my chemical engineering classes, this almost never happens. It’s always the science and math classes outside of my department where this happens. In my chemE classes, I experience something more along the lines of what you described. There’s only the project and what I can contribute. I wish I could say that all my classes were like that.

      I’m glad that you have such an environment to work in – I hope that I find one like that too. Maybe everything changes after undergrad. All I can say is that the fact that it has even happened to me is unfortunate.

  3. Thanks for sharing your comments! I think it is important to be having these conversations and to make sure people are recognized for their talents and not who they are. Unfortunately I think it still happens that people are judged based on who they are and what they look like – even in 2013.

  4. Morgan Madeira says:

    The underrepresentation of women in STEM is such an important issue and clearly there is no easy solution. I agree with Emily – we need more women for us to feel more comfortable. An individual can power through the barriers of gender inequality on their own (mainly with confidence), but it certainly isn’t easy. And ignoring the gender stereotypes doesn’t mean you won’t encounter them, as was clearly pointed out by what happened on the science blog when Elise Andrew posted her Twitter account. People will always be judged based on their appearance because it’s something we will always notice; but it’s how we act on and control those judgments that matters. It’s the lack of control shown by so many people that I find disheartening about this story.

  5. Claudette DuPont T-SITE MECH E says:

    Great Post!

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