On my first day of my first semester as an engineering student, I walked into my very first engineering lab. I was a sophomore—a typical student who realized a year into her college career that she hated her degree and wanted to change. Before I was even ten feet into the classroom, a boy grabbed my arm and stopped me.
“This is a first year engineering lab.”
I stared at him dumfounded for a second, before finally saying slowing, “Yeah...I know..."
He smiles and replies “Well, I’d hate for you to accidentally wander into an engineering lab.”
You have got to be kidding me. I have been an engineering student for approximately 15 minutes, and I’ve already been the victim of sexism. As the semester and year went on, it continued, even increased. The men in my engineering group expected me to do all the work, and a professor I have this semester refers to the four women in our class as the “lady engineers”. My advisor told me that I’d be “better off” pursuing a degree in women and gender studies if I was this bothered by the way I was treated by the engineering department.
But this article isn’t about me. This is about all the women across college campuses who are trying to learn in environments where we are the minority. According to the National Girls Collaborative Project study performed in 2011, women only received 19.2 percent of STEM degrees, and women of color only earning 3.1 percent of those degrees in the following year. This isn’t even limited to STEM, and extends into other male-dominated majors that lead to higher-paying jobs.
And if you think—this study was done in 2011, I’m sure things have improved since then!—You’d be wrong.
To make matters worse, it isn’t just engineering. I also am an undergraduate researcher at the James Cancer Center. All the labs are more or less connected, and I am one of the few women within the lab. Luckily, the lab I work in is all women—my graduate fellow is a woman, and all the other undergraduates I work with are women. But most of the primary investigators within my building are men. Most of the labs are run by men, and they therefore hire men. It certainly doesn’t help that most of the people who graduate with STEM degrees are men to begin with.
How do you bridge that gap? How do you encourage women to major in STEM when you always be the minority, whether in classes, in your research lab, etc.? It constantly feels like an uphill battle just to be on the same playing field as the men in the same place.
THIS is why feminism on college campuses is so important. As my favorite Beyoncé song reminds us, “A feminist is a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes." Why is that definition important when talking about college campuses? Equality means that men and women are treated the same way. That means referring to women as just engineers instead of “lady engineers," and encouraging the women who do decide to pursue degrees in STEM majors to stick with it and support them. Representation matters—choosing to hire the few women who do get a degree and giving women someone to talk to about the struggles they have faced. Representation matters. I could repeat it a thousand times, and yet men with fewer qualifications will get hired over the woman every time—just look at the presidential election.
But more than anything else, making feminism an integral part of the college experience creates strong, smart, independent women who won’t take shit from ANYONE. Feminism will bring college women together to love, support and help each other become the best women they can be. They will come together to overcome when the odds are so clearly stacked against them. Destroying the hostile environment for women which college campuses facilitate will do nothing but improve lives for everyone - especially colleges, who are STILL not handling rape and Title IX cases appropriately (like, come on, it’s 2017).
I am a proud feminist. That means that I will fight for ALL women, whether here in the United States or a thousand miles away, and I will continue to fight, yell, and march until there is a time where all my sister women are respected for the badass and smart women they truly are. And when I can be taken seriously when I tell someone that I am a biological engineering major, pre-vet, who wants to become a veterinarian for the military, rather than be told “that’s for men”.