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Seven Struggles of Being a Woman in STEM

With only 20 percent of engineering school graduates being women, and only 11 percent of those women becoming practicing engineers, it is easy to feel alone and discouraged.

Women are a minority in many STEM-related fields, and the numbers are not getting better. Many women leave their fields due to the struggles they endure as being part of a male-dominated culture. This article will explain some of the most common struggles women in STEM face from a day to day basis. I have included a few of my own personal stories as examples. 

1. You will usually have to go further than your male counterparts to prove your competence and intelligence.

When you pursue your degree in engineering as a woman, prepare to be challenged! Constantly being challenged, no matter how big or how small your claim is, can get stressful and overwhelming. Many women in engineering related fields feel a lack of confidence as a result of always having to prove themselves.

As I started college I noticed this more and more. I noticed how women's answers in the classroom would be nitpicked and how they would have to defend their answer until it was perfect (while also noticing this didn't happen as much, if at all, with the men in the class). As a result, it makes you more defensive, which to some people comes across as being bitchy or arrogant.

I remember working with two male students during a physics lab and all three of us were working on a problem that involved a lot of math. I finished first and because I was feeling confident in my answer, I told them I finished. One of them was very hesitant while looking at my answer and then proceeded to question and nitpick parts of my math. After spending ten minutes explaining my process and why it is right, he still didn't trust me and continued to work on his own. Five minutes later, the other male student said he finished and he ended up getting the same answer as me. The first guy stopped what he was doing, copied his work and answer, and flipped the page. He did not acknowledge that I was right in the first place and he did not question or hesitate to accept the other male student's answer. Why did he assume I was wrong? Why did he make me prove my work and not make the other male student prove his work?

This is just one example of when I have had to go further to prove myself and still not be treated equally. Women in STEM experience this type of inequality very frequently in and after college. In fact, many women who left a STEM-related field reported that they left because of constantly being challenged and having to go further than their male counterparts to prove their intelligence.

In one of the classes I took as a sophomore, I was the only girl. Although I pretty much knew everyone in my class, it was hard for me to feel comfortable saying things in class at first. The professor would ask questions that I knew the answer to and no one would answer. I wanted to answer so bad but I was afraid I could be wrong and if I was I would look like the dumb girl in the class; if I was right, would I look like a know-it-all? Most of the time I didn't answer it was because I didn't feel like being challenged as it begins to be exhausting. It took a while for me to be confident enough to answer questions and make comments during class, despite sometimes being shot down.

Use the power of being underestimated to your advantage! Recognize that just because you are the only female in the class doesn't mean everything you say has to be right. It is okay to make mistakes. Everyone else is allowed to make mistakes so don't be ashamed if you do. If you're hesitant to answer a question, just answer it! Even if you're wrong, you still attempted to answer it and they didn't. After all, you're there to get your education so don't let others prevent you from learning just because they want to challenge you. Accept the challenge. 

2. Reminding yourself of the statistics, but still being shocked when you are the minority in your classes.

As you start taking more concentrated engineering courses and less entry-level courses, you will notice the number of females in your classes dwindle down. I remember the calculus class I took my freshman year; there was a pretty even split of girls and guys. However, this was the highest math class that student from non-STEM related fields had to take. So, my next calculus class there were far fewer women and this downward pattern continued as the level of difficulty grew higher.

No matter how many times I reminded myself that there will be fewer and fewer women in my classes, I was still shocked when I opened the door on the first day of classes. 

You don't think it makes a difference being the only girl in your class, but there are days that it is very frustrating and overwhelming and you just feel out of place. There are times when you feel like you can't be yourself because there is no one else in the room that understands.

3. Finding female friends who are also studying engineering are few and far between.

It is difficult to make friends when there is a limited number of females in your classes. The best thing you can do is get involved in clubs that are geared towards women in STEM, like SWE or SWAP. I made connections with the girls in the SWE club at my school and walking into our weekly meeting every Monday was like walking into sanctuary!

It doesn't seem like a lot, but an hour a week with other women who are going through the same struggles as you, have the same assignments as you, and can just relate to you is like hitting the reset button before a stressful week. It reminds you that you are not alone even when you look around your classroom and feel outnumbered.

4. Making the same mistake as someone else but getting criticized and belittled for it.

One day before class, everyone was going over some of the assigned homework problems. One of the male students in the class pointed out to another male student that he had made a math mistake. The student replied "thank you, I didn't see that" to which the other student replied, "yeah, no problem". There was no other dialogue to this conversation, he pointed out the mistake and assumed his friend knew how to fix it. 

I asked about what the mistake was to see if I had made the same mistake, which it turns out I did. I replied "thank you" and assumed he would say "no problem" and walk away just as he did with the other student. I knew how to fix the mistake. Instead, I was asked "why did you forget that step? We do it all the time in other problems. Do you want me to explain how you do it? You see, if you just --" and I cut him off and said "I see what I did, I got it now. Thank you". Still not accepting the fact that I clearly knew what I was doing, he asks "are you sure".

Next week on Mythbusters: Why did he assume the male student knew how to fix the mistake but assumed I didn't and needed an explanation and assistance? 

I am not at all saying that men do this on purpose to belittle women (although some of them do). I am just stating an observation I have made the past few years as a student. It happens very often to me as well as some of the other women in my field. 

I mention this as a struggle because of how it has affected me and other women who have the same issue. When this happens numerous times, you begin to expect it. You expect the unasked criticism of your work and the assumption that you don't know what you are doing. So the next time you do something, you are constantly looking for every little mistake that could be judged. I have always been one to double check my work, but since this started in college I have been very critical of my own work to the point that I can't sleep until I finish the problem, check for every mistake, and develop an explanation for every step of my work. I do this because I know the questions and criticism will be coming the next day and if I need to be prepared to defend my work and prove that I do know what I am doing.  

As a result, I have become very defensive over my work. When someone questions or doubts my work, I will do everything I can to prove its validity since I spent so much time perfecting it. The reason I take it so personally is because I want them to see that I do know what I am talking about so that next time I don't get treated like I don't know what I am doing. 

Collaborating with other women in engineering, I am not the only one who experiences this issue and its aftermath. It is a very common struggle that many women will confess to. It adds a lot of unnecessary stress, you can't just focus on your work because you are also thinking in the back of your mind "how will I justify this when someone challenges me".

5. The stigma that if you are a woman in STEM you can't be attractive and if you are attractive you aren't smart.

On behalf of all women in a STEM-related field: our appearance does not define our intelligence. How can you rank someone's intelligence based on their looks and still consider yourself smart? The notion that pretty girls are dumb and less attractive girls are smart is blatantly offensive, rude, and incorrect. 

Never let someone classify you based on your appearance! Whether you are a girly girl or a tom-boy, you can do the anything you want in this world.  Women collectively, as a whole, have proved that we are just as capable as men when it comes to just about everything; we should not be sub-categorized based on our looks to determine our intellectual level. 

I took my Differential Equations final in heels and a dress, with make-up on and got the highest grade in the class. I also took a circuit analysis exam in sweatpants, a stained t-shirt, with no make-up and messy hair and got the highest grade in the class. Your appearance does not define your level of intelligence.

Moreover, men don't rank other men's intelligence based on their looks. So why does it make sense to do that to women? If we wanted to be judged based on our looks we would join a beauty pageant.

6. Communication and Translation

Men and women speak different languages. Have you ever had an argument with your significant other and wondered why they don't understand what you're saying despite how perfectly clear you are making your point? 

One of the most frustrating things I have encountered as a student is being attacked for the way I solved a problem and then trying to communicate my thought process to a man while equally trying to understand their thought process. You may think you are being perfectly clear, yet they still don't understand...and you just want to bash your head on the desk. How much clearer can I make it? And I am sure they are thinking the same thing. 

Sometimes things just get lost in translation. 

7. Not Being Treated Equally Because Others Are Afraid of How You Will React Due to the Stigma That Women Are Emotional and Fragile

Similar to men and women speaking different languages, men will give feedback and criticism to other men differently than they will to women. Often times it is hard for women to get the honest feedback they need because men are afraid of the way women will react to it; they think that women can't handle it.

This stems from the stigma that women are dramatic, emotional, and fragile. Not providing accurate feedback is unprofessional and can easily lead someone astray on their work. There is nothing wrong with telling someone your honest opinion as long as you do it respectfully and professionally without belittling or demeaning.

To be honest, if a woman has made it into an engineering program and is competing at the same level as the men around her, don't you think she's strong enough to handle the same honest feedback? We do the same math, take the same tests, stress through the same projects, and compete at the same level as men. Trust me, we are not fragile. We can handle it. 

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