Sunday, October 2, 2022

COLUMN: Our experiences as women in STEM

March 31, 2022

To be a woman in STEM requires certain diligence, perseverance and self-confidence that can only be found in those willing to face daunting challenges. 

That is not fair. 

Discrimination stems from the way you look or sound or laugh or dress. If you have a delicate, quiet voice, it invites people to walk all over you.

If you’re smiley or bubbly or girly, it’s like you don’t deserve success. If you like your hair long and your dresses short, people seem to look right through you. Your thoughts, ideas, and instances of success can cut through air, but not through walls. 

The ceiling is made of glass. You’re brilliant and kind and creative, but it’s just not enough.

Dr. Sophia Lunt, an associate professor here at Michigan State University, shared her similar experiences of rising up in the science world.

“The reason I initially became interested in chemistry was because I realized molecules can explain a lot of things in life,” she said.

Lunt grew up in South Korea, immigrating to the U.S. when she was 9 years old. She went to a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania for her undergraduate years, then received her Ph.D. from Princeton University. She received her postdoctoral from MIT.

“You know how they say there's an iceberg?” she asked. “And at the top are the most obvious things, like sexual harassment or assault, right? But then there's stuff below the iceberg. Like getting ignored, not being invited to meetings, things like that.”

“When I went to Princeton, all of a sudden, I realized, 'Oh, how come I wasn't invited to that meeting? How come I didn't get recommended for this scholarship? How come I wasn’t nominated for that award?'”

“You’re dismissed as being dumb,” Lunt put it simply.

When asked about advice for other young women entering the STEM field, Lunt refers to finding the right support network.  Whether it be a partner, best friend, or even your parents, find people that will be there for you during your endeavors.

In 2019, women made up 48% of the U.S. workforce, but only 27% of the STEM field, according to the U.S. Census.

Additionally, gender gap earnings persisted within STEM occupations, according to the U.S. Census.

These gaps can be explained by the fact that as early as kindergarten, girls are receiving the message that they are not as qualified as their male counterparts in science and math. 

A 2014 study found that many psychological barriers prevent women from participating in STEM.

These barriers, beginning in early childhood, include math and science being more openly discussed around young boys than young girls, higher math anxiety in female teachers which is then associated with lower mathematical achievement in female students, biased ability beliefs from teachers and parents, peer influences and media influences. 

When young girls are receiving the message that they cannot be both a woman and excel in science, whether that be from T.V. exemplifications that portray the main character as a pretty and popular girl involved in the arts with a nerdy, disheveled and socially awkward friend that likes science to balance her out, or from a teacher that implicitly believes that boys are better in STEM, it impacts them, and often for the rest of their lives. 

From elementary to high school, I truly believed that I was not good at math or science. I believed my male peers were far better than me. I also believed they were more competent than the girls in my classes that excelled in the subjects. 

These beliefs were not intentional, and barely even realized, but still, I held them. 

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Selma Cogo, first year molecular biology and biochemistry

And then there was the 'bimbofication.' The subtle sexualization. When you’re 16, it’s like the world revolves around your ability to be…pretty. To be preppy and fun and happy and up for whatever. No matter the feelings that are hurt, or the different ways your heart is broken. How is it fair to have beauty and intelligence divested on such opposite sides? 

I’ve always had this sort of…steadfast determination. No one could tell me no. I did what I wanted, and I chased my dreams. At 15, I was scouted by a modeling industry and spent the most imperative years of my life being criticized, controlled and pretty much hunted. My boyfriend at the time and I had these huge dreams, where we would move to an NYC agency and be young and beautiful and happy. I would go to school and model, and he would take on the high-fashion world. We would make it work. The unfortunate truth of modeling, though, is that it barely pays…anything. Most designers pay you for your time in their clothes, and you can’t pay for university through clothing.

Therefore, I let my dream die. He took off, but I had always wanted to be a doctor, and I would allow nothing to stop that from happening. I WOULD go to med school in a busy, exciting city. I WOULD become a doctor, no matter the things I had to leave behind. It’s rather unfortunate that we always have to choose between the things that we love.   

When I came to college, I had this idea that things would be different, and inadvertently better from when I was in high school. I would be seen as a whole of a person. But my physical appearance, it seems, will never cease to trick people. 

They'd ask things like, “I thought you’d be a party girl.” 

“You don’t drink? Really? You seem like you’d drink. Want a drink?”

It gets old after a while. It used to be flattering, and I’m guilty of letting the compliments mean too much to me, but empty words are still empty, no matter how sugarcoated.

Madison Rose, second year journalism and pre-PA

Despite my lifelong dreams of being a doctor, I decided to major in journalism. I did not think I was smart enough or competent enough to major in a STEM field. 

I knew that in journalism I would not be able to make enough money to pay off my college loans, or to even pay rent, but I also knew that I could marry a man that planned to be a doctor, an engineer or a computer scientist. I could not be a doctor — I was not good enough — but I was pretty and well-versed in literature and the arts so I knew I could marry one. 

I was not fully ready to give up science though, so I decided to take the pre-PA route, but continue my major in journalism. 

In my online science classes, far away from other students, teachers and my childhood media, I found that I excelled in the courses, and actually enjoyed them. I continued to struggle in math, but if I worked hard, I could do well.

Slowly, I became more confident in my abilities and began to even consider switching my major to STEM, but then, COVID restrictions were lifted and I came on campus for the first time. 

I found myself treated differently from my male peers in my science classes. Just recently, in my chemistry lab, I and the two other girls in my group received a 3.5 on our presentation. We had lost points on body language, eye contact and speaking.

The one boy in our group received a 4.0. 

In college, 49.2% of women who originally intend to major in science and engineering as a first-year switch to a non-STEM major, compared to 32.5% of men, according to the National Science Foundation National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics.

From elementary school to higher education, women receive the message that they cannot work in the science field, and they listen. Girls are criticized and categorized to the point where brilliant minds are too afraid to see the light of day. Beauty becomes the kind of pain that you’re better off never talking about.

They want us to be pretty, but they never want us to be smart.

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