Looking at the news doesn’t ameliorate my repugnance with the world because scattered throughout the dismal articles about gun control and other political division that characterizes the government, is the now disgraced pageant of Hollywood stars whose abhorrent sexual misconduct is exposed to the public.
Groups like #MeToo and Time’s Up as well as the multiple marches for women’s issues emphasize the inequality that still pervades our society, both implicitly and explicitly.
As a female in STEM (I’m an astrophysics major), it is apparent to me that many women face continual disadvantages and bias against them, simply because of their gender. I attended a Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics back in January hosted by the University of Columbia, where I got to hear panels of women in many professional sectors at various stages in their careers explain their stories. Some talked about their research while others expressed their opinions about being women who balance their multiple responsibilities while also being unfairly treated, inspiring many of the attendees.
They found the strength within themselves and with the support of other women.
In my freshman year, I was one of the Johnson & Johnson Women in STEM scholarship recipients and at the end of the year, there was a dinner with the head women at J&J. They too told their stories and one woman mentioned that women will only do something if they are 90% confident, whereas men will attempt something if they are only 50% confident. Women tend to be perfectionists and men look at big picture results.
This was the paradigm I was presented during college. Shift to one year earlier, my senior year of high school. For most of my high school career, I was one of the smartest people in my grade. I always made the right marks, teachers seemed to like me, and I was president of Academic Decathlon/Challenge as well as a member of the National Honor Society, Science National Honor Society, Math League… you get the picture. I fit the stereotype of a nerd.
College application season came around, the closing of class ranks was imminent, and I had just come fresh from of a summer where I was an NJ Governor School of Engineering and Technology scholar. Even if you don’t know what major you want to be by that point, it’s expected that you have at least a general idea of a field.
I was on track to be the top of the class and with it came the expectation of Ivy League schools and a STEM major.
I’ve always been quite fluid about my choice of future careers. Every year it was something different, from Pharmacy to Journalism to Computer Science to Editing to Astrophysics. I could never fully choose. Sometimes that was because of who I was. I felt like it was chosen for me. There were many points during senior year where I was overly stressed as well as mildly depressed.
For the past 12 years, everyone always called me the smartest, projected big dreams for me, and never thought any challenge was beyond my reach. I could not be more appreciative because I never felt like I wasn't supported, by my parents, friends, teachers, or classmates. But I internalized the stress that is linked to failing to live up to those expectations.
I decided not to apply for an Ivy League for the reasons of avoiding rejection and conforming to the realization that I wouldn’t thrive in an overly competitive environment.
Cut to graduation day. I was valedictorian, attending Rutgers in the fall as an astrophysics major. Not counting myself, more than half of the top twenty of the class were also females who planned on going into STEM, including our salutatorian. From my perspective, going into STEM seemed to be a popular education path for high ranking females. I went along with what I believed I loved and had an aptitude for.
I’m currently in my second year at Rutgers and I still haven’t evaded my indecision.
As an astrophysics, English, and medieval studies triple major, I try to blend my love of science and humanities together.
Over the past semester, this struggle I’ve had since high school came to a head.
My grades suffered as well as my mental health. I was taking 16 credits worth of STEM classes plus one English class, I worked 20 to 30 hours a week, and I was hating almost every minute of my classes. I stopped trying my best and settled for good enough. It took my semester GPA and a great deal of soul searching to realize that I didn’t have to be in STEM and that even though many expectations were placed upon me, it was ultimately up to me to decide what would work best. I didn’t have to be a woman in physics just because I was a woman and I could do it.
To be a woman in STEM, there is one major question to ask yourself: Are you willing to work hard, regardless of how hard other work and do you want to be in STEM? Going into this Spring semester, I decided to still pursue the triple major, but focus on my English major to pursue a career in publishing. Astrophysics is now a personal endeavor instead of what I felt to be an externally imposed requirement.
Even though my personal struggle proved trying on me, I always felt like I had a community behind me. My one friend who goes to another college, unfortunately, didn’t share this experience.
He, like me, is also in physics, but he’s lacked a base of people he can rely on at his college, which has forced him to think about transferring schools. For me, my base has been people I’ve met in my classes and especially my other coworkers. I work at the physics lecture hall, where I set up demos and help with physics outreach. There definitely is a skewed demographic towards men in the classes and the work environment, but I’ve never felt at a disadvantage.
Though many women at the conference talked about finding adversity when in classes and feeling like they had to be perfect or prove themselves, I’ve been fortunate enough to be met with peers who are equally willing to tutor me, be taught by me, or admit defeat and confusion alongside me.
In my classes, our group chats always blow up as we try to do our problem sets or study for midterms and everyone speaks, contributing formulas, solutions, and some exclamations along the lines of “what is this question asking” and “please curve gods, be gentle on us.” My other friend who attends a largely male Polytechnic Institute has also been met with a similar reception at her university.
She may be the only girl in most of her classes and project groups, but she feels more like a student in STEM than specifically a woman in STEM.
At my job, everyone is trained to be equally capable of every job we are presented, though some people gravitate towards certain sectors over others. Even though I work with a majority of guys and I have only been there a year and a half, we coexist without a hierarchy, playing off of each person’s strengths. If the boss puts me in charge, there is no contention.
As I review my academic career so far, I recognize and I am thankful that I’ve been met with unwavering support. Being a woman in STEM hasn’t made me feel less worthy as a contributor to the field. In all actuality, being a smart female has made STEM feel like the “obvious” choice for me, even though most of that was an exaggerated internalization of expectations.
For other women who are considering STEM, my only point of skepticism is whether they actually want to be in STEM.
My encouragement is that even though a multitude of women face bias simply because of their gender, there are also communities of support where this will not happen. Sometimes the lack of support will be because of the sexism that still exists, and sometimes, like my other friend who wants to transfer, it could be that the community is just a wrong fit.
My personal hope for the future (no that is not a pun on my own name or at least it wasn’t intentional) is that my story will not be amongst the minority of perspectives. All of the women I know who are in STEM, many of whom conduct research and share a great passion for the sciences, are major contributors in their fields.
One day the demographic landscape of STEM won’t be skewed towards a certain group and instead of having men in STEM and women in STEM. There will just be students and professors seeking answers to the universe’s questions and solutions to the world’s problems.
Ubi concordia, ibi victoria - Publius Syrus
"Where there is unity, there is the victory."