Probably one of the biggest reasons women leave STEM majors and careers is the amount of discouragement and sexism we face from our male (and sometimes, female) colleagues and superiors. Research has also shown that men in science are more likely to have higher starting salaries than women (what a shocker).
In high school, there were plenty of girls in my AP Physics B class, but significantly fewer in the AP Physics C course the next year. However, at that point, I never felt like I was discriminated against due to my gender. Or, perhaps I was too young to notice it.
When I began college, a female engineering student who lived in my dorm and who was a year older than me told all of us incoming freshmen: “There are going to be times when guys dismiss what you have to say in your math and science classes because you’re a girl. Stand up for yourselves.”
I thought this sounded strange. I had never experienced anything like this before. But she was right, and I began seeing it within the first few weeks of college, and it only got worse from there.
There have been times when I knew I solved a problem correctly, and explained my methodology, only to be ignored until my male peers realized that I had, in fact, been correct. I have been called stupid. I have been told by a male classmate that I wasn’t as good at math or physics as he was.
When I was a senior in college, physics majors had the option to take either an optics lab or an electronics lab as part of our graduation requirements. Liking electronics better, I chose to take it when it was offered in the springtime. About a dozen different guys told me not to, that it was so much harder than optics, and that no one ever got an A in electronics lab. For too long, I believed what they told me, and stressed out a full semester in advance, thinking I was about to take the hardest class of my life. What if I failed? What if I passed, but got a really bad grade? What graduate school would accept me? They told me that not even the marshal of the class before us had gotten an A in electronics lab, and her GPA was almost a perfect 4.0 upon graduation.
In the end, I ended up with an A. From then on, whenever men have told me what I am or am not capable of, I practice my “smile and nod”, and then I do whatever the hell I want.
“This school is too hard to get into.” *smile and nod and apply to said school*
“That class is too difficult.” *smile and nod and take the class anyway*
“Almost no one is able to get a job at that company.” *smile and nod and submit my resume*
You get the idea. However, I have been generally lucky, in that for every man (or boy) that has told me I couldn’t do something, there have been many more who have supported me, asked for my input, and listened to my plans for experimentation while giving critical feedback. I have also been fortunate enough to have had amazing mentors (who have all been men) at each step of the way, encouraging me, teaching me, and writing me positive letters of recommendation so that I could get to the next step in my career.
Other friends of mine, however, have had different experiences with sexism than I have. One of my best friends, Rachel, was a math major with a physics minor in college and was an excellent student. She had just switched to the math major from engineering and was looking for a study group. She befriended another female student who she would often work on homework with. One day, this friend invited a male friend of hers (let’s call him “Larry”) to join her and Rachel to work on a difficult problem set.
Larry was trying to construct a mathematical argument based on faulty assumptions, using arrogance that I myself remember very well when I worked on physics problems with him. Rachel was annoyed at his ramblings, which were taking up more time than she had to spare. She waited until he was done talking before starting to question his assumptions, hoping that he would recognize the error in his thinking. He responded to her polite questions by telling her that, because she had a “female brain”, she would not be able to comprehend his mathematical argument because it relied on spatial reasoning. She was so livid that she had no words to respond, as he proceeded to explain the “science” behind her supposed inability to comprehend objects in space. When he realized how angry she was, he went on to reassure her that her language and social skills, however, were superior to his, because she is a woman.
That was the last time they studied together. During that period, Rachel recalls that she felt a personal responsibility to prove that in spite of sexism such as this, she could still excel in all of her male-dominated classes. She ended up earning an A in the class while Larry, aka, Mr. “Spatial Reasoning”, barely passed.
After finishing undergrad, Rachel took a few years off from school and tutored students in math and science before eventually earning a master’s degree in education, after which she began teaching math at the local high school where she lived. The sexism, unfortunately, had not stopped. On one of her first days as a new teacher, the head of the department (an elderly man), joked about the women staying in the kitchen during lunch period. I can’t imagine he got any genuine laughs. Rachel says after hearing this “joke”, she immediately got up and left.
As she continued her job as a math teacher, the same department head told her that while teaching the special-education students, she should look at it as more of a “motherly” role instead of a teacher role. I’m willing to bet that a man would not be riddled with such responsibilities. It reminds me of my years in graduate school when I always wound up mentoring more students than anyone else, while also juggling my own research, personal life, thesis writing, and job search for after graduation. I don’t think this was intentional. But it did lead me to start taking anxiety medication, so I didn’t wake up with a panic attack every morning during my last year of graduate school. However, I got through graduate school relatively unscathed, and remember my time as a PhD student with a lot of nostalgia.
Another friend of mine has had to put up quite a battle as a graduate student. Anna* was working on a PhD in physics and was told, after more than four years into the program, that she lacked a fundamental understanding of physics and that the university she was at didn’t “hand out PhDs”. She was told that, perhaps, she would be happier doing something else in terms of her career, and that doing a PhD is not like looking up answers in the back of a book. She was being denied the chance to take her candidacy exam, which is a checkpoint that allows you to get to the next step in a PhD program. Without a candidacy exam, the department doesn’t have any account that you are doing publishable research and are on track to eventually graduate.
“Don’t let this failure define you”, one faculty member told her, implying that there was no way she would get her PhD. Her grades were constantly questioned, despite having a 3.8 GPA. She told me a similar thing happened to another female friend of hers who eventually quit, and says she knew of no men that had been through this much vetting in the fifth year of a PhD program, or at any stage. Come to think of it, I couldn’t recall any men who had to deal with discouragement like this, either (although it’s certainly possible).
Eventually, Anna took things into her own hands, calling out the university on social media. She continued to push within the department and the next month, was allowed to take her candidacy exam, which she passed. She aims to graduate soon with her PhD.
There are times when I have wondered if any discrimination I’ve faced as a woman in STEM has been because I am a woman, a minority, or both. However, it doesn’t always feel completely fair for me to complain about this because, as an Indian, my ethnicity is well-represented in these fields, and Indians are viewed as “competent minorities” (don’t get me started on this nonsense). A friend of mine who is currently working on a PhD in physics had and continues to have different experiences as an African-American woman.
Odell* attended an HBCU (Historically Black College/University, for those of you who are unaware and are too ashamed to google it). In this setting, she was not an ethnic minority, but still suffered from sexism as a physics major. Her choices to apply to certain graduate schools were questioned, she was passed up for internship and networking opportunities over her male peers, and new female physics faculty were discouraged from mentoring the few female physics majors at the university.
As a graduate student, though, she attended a university that was majority white. Not only did she still face the same “routine” sexism as a woman in STEM, but now she was also faced with subtle racism as a black woman. She dealt with the standard “hair comments and questions”, jokes about her accent, her hometown (which is majority black), and was constantly being asked to show ID to enter buildings on campus, even the one she worked in. She told me that she even faced racially-insensitive jokes about “slave and master” in terms of device communication (where one component is referred to as the “slave”).
She has tried to avoid certain faculty members who believe she is only where she is because of her race and gender (ah, yes, the old “affirmative action privilege”: you didn’t earn this, they just needed minorities and women!). After Trump got elected, she noticed these subtle racist microaggressions increasing in frequency, although none have been overt. But this doesn’t make them ok.
Odell is the first black woman I have worked alongside, and she is brilliant. She is highly intelligent, has a wide knowledge of not only physics, but biology, learns quickly, and is very thorough. When I met her, I understood the hashtag #blackgirlmagic a little bit better. In fact, the first summer I worked alongside Odell, I was also mentoring three new undergraduate students, while trying to wrap up things in the lab to graduate. Interestingly, one of these undergraduates was also a black woman. Odell learned everything I taught her in a short period of time and helped me mentor these new students. Without her, I would have drowned under my responsibilities. After graduating, she helped me push out my last publication from my grad school work. I am sincerely grateful for her.
This post is not meant to discourage women from joining STEM. On the contrary, despite there being many hardships we might face as woman, or even women of color, often there are happy endings, and women that are willing to support and mentor one another when given the chance. There are also platforms for us to speak up, and we shouldn’t overlook those.
Rachel has tutored and taught dozens upon dozens of students in science and math since graduating from college several years ago, many of whom are girls. As a result, she has represented women in STEM in a way that shows young girls that there is, indeed, a place for them at the table, if they want it. Visibility is just as important as any other part of inclusion, and it would not surprise me if she has unknowingly encouraged some of her female students to pursue degrees in STEM, simply by existing and doing her job to the best of her abilities. I, in fact, decided to study physics because I had excellent physics teachers in high school, one of whom was a woman. I thanked them both in my PhD thesis.
Anna fought back against the sexism she faced and is on her way to earning her PhD, after she was told repeatedly by her male mentors that it would not happen.
Odell continues her research as a PhD student – she is an incredible mentor, an independent researcher, and a brilliant scientist. It warmed my heart to know that a black female undergraduate summer research student was so willing to learn while being mentored by Odell in the lab. Again: representation matters. When you see a welcoming atmosphere, success seems more tangible.
Yes, there are hardships when you are a woman in a male-dominated field. This is well-known. What is important to take away from these stories, though, is that there can be persistence and victory, and by pushing through the barriers we currently face as women in these fields, we are paving the way for the next generation of women in STEM.
*Name has been changed to protect the individual’s privacy