Credit: Olivia Frazier | Mustang News

Shelbi Sullaway is a mechanical engineering junior and Mustang News opinion columnist. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Mustang News

“Woman in STEM” is a term you may hear often on the grounds of a college campus. It is like the word “girlboss” for those of us women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and because of that cringey association it is said ironically more often than not. However, “woman in STEM” is more than just a funny phrase, but one that carries with it the difficulties of being a gender minority in a male-dominated field.

The media can make it seem like there has been significant progress in making STEM more diverse. But in the spaces I’ve been in, and how I have experienced the industry, there is a long way to go, and it starts from childhood. 

From a young age we hear about women who made incredible strides in STEM despite the odds being stacked against them: think Mary Curie, Sally Ride. I always admired women in STEM, as someone who identifies as a female and did well in math and science classes growing up. There was a sense of gratification in succeeding in those subjects, and it was a sense of gratification I wanted to chase.

I decided to major in engineering in college, as I couldn’t think of any other career that checked off all the important boxes to me: interest, income, only a few years of school. I also loved the fact that, at face value, engineering seemed like one of the few merit-based careers in a world of unfair advantages. You didn’t need generational wealth or privilege or have to “know a guy” to be an engineer. I also believed there would be an approximately equal level of challenges and fairness, regardless of gender.

Going through college hardened my naive ideas. I often found myself being a token female in my major of Mechanical Engineering, with many classes having less than five girls. This struck me as bizarre at first; however, it quickly became the norm to me, and I realized it was just something I had to get used to. 

I often heard declarations of versions of the statement “engineering needs more women,” from faculty and recruiters at career fair booths. Statements like that made me feel like I was enlisted in some kind of draft – like I could single-handedly make these industries operate better by bringing my difference to the table. Well into college, I am finding that this does not tell the full story.

For me, it doesn’t feel empowering to be few and far between in this industry, nor does it feel like I am changing anything. And often, I don’t feel needed.

When I walk into an engineering class and I’m one of a few girls, it feels much less comfortable than walking into a majority female or gender-balanced class, like some GE’s I’ve taken. In a majority-male class, I feel much more susceptible to being treated differently. 

It would be nice to say that I can see past gender and it doesn’t matter, but that has not been the case and saying that would minimize my experience. I have had male faculty single me out for my gender, lab partners completely tune me out and complete the experiment as if I was not there and professors announce the average grade of their female students and point out how much lower it was than their male students.

Being in environments where I felt alienated, I second-guessed myself often. When I felt like I was taken less seriously I’d wonder: am I actually being treated differently or do I just expect to feel that way because I am the only girl on my team? Or is it both? It almost feels like the answer doesn’t matter because I wouldn’t expect to feel this way in the first place if my team had more diversity.

So yes, diversity is important. Diversity is important because it always feels safer and more comfortable for minority groups when one group is not dominating. Diversity is important because industries are better when a variety of views are considered and it is not just an echo chamber of white men. It has already been shown that industries that lack diversity perpetuate a privilege for those who work in them. Products such as color film, developed in the early 20th century when racism in America was rampant, were skewed against darker skin tones for years

When I hear from recruiters that engineering needs more women, I know a big motive is that these companies want more women so they can create an image of diversity. Along the lines of the girlboss wave, it is a corporate effort—an airbrushed image of performative feminism. 

While encouraging women to enter these industries is important, I think the systemic roots of the issue need to be talked about more. The lack of diversity in this field is deeply linked to historical societal injustices and mainly, I believe, differences in how boys and girls are raised.

Since its conception, engineering has been a male-dominated industry. The first strides in engineering came before women could vote or go to college. The first cars and planes were created in a world that had never heard of the female engineer. This male-dominated history is deeply rooted in the industry of engineering, and most STEM industries. The wealthiest 25 tech executives in 2018 were all men. 

On top of the history being skewed towards men in technology fields, many men have been set up to succeed in these fields since childhood. As early as toddler age, girls are primed to focus on skills that are very oriented towards being passive and nurturing, given toys like dolls, and all things pink and pretty and sparkly. Boys are the problem-solvers, game conquerors, truck operators, given toys that encourage qualities of strength, courage and leadership. 

I didn’t realize until college how fundamentally behind I felt. I always excelled in the more general subjects especially in high school: math, physics, chemistry. But engineering requires a much different wheelhouse of the brain, which I had not practiced in any hobbies or activities. 

The Institution for Engineering and Technology found toys with a technology focus were three times as likely to be targeted at boys. I did not know the inner-workings of a car or my electronic devices, and came to learn that these were activities some of my peers have done for years.

Even when hearing people celebrate and encourage women working in STEM, they often highlight the importance of more “feminine” soft-skills and communication as the strength that needs to be brought to engineering. This further feeds into the idea that men are doing the “real” or “important” work and aren’t as good at soft skills.

So while it is important to make space for women in jobs and educational spaces, I think it is even more important to address the social structures that are considered a norm to us that constantly reinforce the problem in the first place.

I have heard negative experiences from women in STEM, such as being the only woman in their office. Experiences like this can be so disheartening that it can cause the woman to leave that position altogether. 

Companies should focus on making space for the women working for them. Companies should do outreach to even younger women, encouraging girls to get involved with problem-solving activities. And for women in STEM, we should work to find a space where we feel welcomed, comfortable and truly needed.