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?”
I 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.
As 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.