Picture a scientist. You're probably picturing a white guy in a lab coat and goggles, holding a beaker of some solution.
Probably something like this, right? You're not the only one. The typical scientist stereotype is a Caucasian male, but the world needs to understand that any person can be a scientist, regardless of gender, race, sexuality, or any other factor.
And you may think to yourself, "No, everybody knows that anyone can be a scientist, come on," but I'll be the first one to tell you, not everyone acts like it. I've experienced first hand the discriminations that come with being a woman in a STEM field.
Being a woman in STEM, I've had to deal with micro-aggressions and imposter syndrome. I was recently asked to speak on a panel of successful women in STEM, and while speaking on the panel, I realized that this is something I'm very passionate about, and decided to share my experiences, and how I deal with them, with all of you.
I should start out by saying, I have not experienced micro-aggressions and imposter syndrome to a terrible extent. I'm sure (unfortunately) that there have been and will be many women who have had it far far worse than I have. However, that doesn't mean I haven't experienced it, because I have.
I should also add that I go to a very liberal school that does a terrific job of including minorities and women in STEM fields and does its best to make everyone feel included and feel like they belong. However, no matter how hard my University works to combat these issues, there will always be a few comments here and there, a few micro-aggressions that sneak in. I'm here to reflect upon that and help you deal with it if you are in a similar situation.
I have a very distinct memory of the first significant micro-aggression I experienced. I was working in my research lab. As a side note, I am the only female and the only undergraduate in my research lab, but all of the guys that I work with are amazing . They always make me feel like I belong there, and never ever make me feel insignificant or beneath them at all.
I couldn't ask for a better group of chemists to work with, but unfortunately, at times, I have to interact with other people besides them. One day, a now-graduate student, who worked in the lab as an undergraduate long before I started there came in to visit.
He saw me sitting at my desk working on data and he said to me "You work here? You don't seem very analytical... Do you even know what analytical means?" I was so stunned to the point that I couldn't even respond. Clearly, if I'm 19 years old working in a research lab amongst graduate students and doctors, I am analytical... but he thought I didn't even know what that word meant!
I wasn't even doing anything that implied I was a bad scientist or was not analytical. I was simply just plotting data at a computer.
I was too stunned to even formulate words. Nobody has ever been so blatantly demeaning towards me before. And like I said, I never feel out of place in my research lab, so the fact that this happened there was stunning to me. Luckily, the graduate student that I work for saw my shock and stepped in. (I wasn't exaggerating when I said the people in my lab are great).
He saw the shock on my face, told the student that I was a great worker in the lab, and ushered him out of the room.
What did I learn from this? I learned that although I am usually surrounded by encouraging people who understand my capabilities and strengths, there will be times when I am around people who see me as less than them, even if their opinion has no grounding.
Usually, I'm very combative and argumentative when I feel attacked, but looking back, I'm grateful that I was too stunned to say anything in response. It didn't give him an opportunity to say anything bad about me, and now, from this experience, I know to hold my tongue.
I know my worth, my skill, and my talents, and so do the men that I work alongside in my lab, so the opinions of others do not matter to me.
Following that experience, I started noticing micro-aggressions more and more. I'm not sure if it is because I was initially just ignorant to them until the "analytical" experience opened my eyes, or if it is because I am getting closer and closer to the STEM degrees I am pursuing, and thus farther along on the STEM track, and taking more advanced classes.
Although it does not happen often, I occasionally encounter a comment or two from an older male scientist, insinuating I do not belong or that I do not know what I am doing. For example, multiple times I have had teaching assistants talk down to me as if I am incompetent.
They would say things like "Oh, are you sure you did that right?" or "I don't think you did this correctly," even when I do nothing wrong. It is almost as if they're eager to discover a mistake I've made, and they go looking for mistakes in my work. Never in my research lab, but frequently in my classes, I feel as if I have to prove my competence over and over again.
Because of this, I feel as if I've developed, to a certain degree, imposter syndrome.
If you don't know what imposter syndrome is, it is essentially doubting your own self-competence. It is believing that all of the successes that come to you are not from your hard work but from mere coincidence or luck. It is feeling as if you have to prove your competence over and over again.
Dealing with these micro-aggressions sometimes makes me think "maybe I really don't deserve to be as successful as I am. Maybe they're right. Maybe I'm not as smart as I think I am." However, I'm fortunate enough to frequently be surrounded by people who do not make me feel incompetent and constantly encourage me, and they have taught me how to deal with this imposter syndrome.
Whenever I begin to feel as if my successes are from luck, and that I am undeserving of all of the great opportunities and awards that come my way, I look in the mirror and say out loud "You are great. You are deserving." I know that is so cheesy, but honestly, it helps.
I frequently remind myself aloud that my successes are not mere coincidences, but are manifestations of my hard work and dedication that I deserve. I like to think about my successes and think about the hard work that got me there. Reflecting upon my hard work always helps to convince me that I deserve all that I get.
My favorite quote of all time is John F. Kennedy's quote "To whom much is given, much is expected." This quote is my driving force to earn my two STEM degrees. I have been given so much, and have gotten so many great opportunities, so I am going to reciprocate that as much as I can by working as hard as I possibly can.
It may seem as if I am working overly hard to prove my competence as a woman, but it is actually to give back to the world that has given so much to me and to gain knowledge and understanding and become a more well-rounded person.
This is why you should want to learn. This is why you should work hard in school. Not because you feel you need to prove your competence and worth, because no matter how people make you feel, you don't. Do not work hard in school just because you're a woman or a minority (or both) and feel as if you need to prove yourself because of this, because you don't.
Do it for you . Work hard for yourself. Because once you make it, and once your hard work pays off, all of those micro-aggressions and feelings of imposter syndrome won't even matter. The important take away from this is happy with yourself. Work hard and do well for yourself and your own personal growth.
Never let anyone make you feel inferior because of who you are. Finally, always do your best, and give back to the world that has given so much to you. You are deserving and never forget it.