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None of the Boys: Female Identity in STEM

December 2nd, 2014     by Julia Nguyen     Comments

There is a huge push to get more girls and women involved in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. From problem-solving construction toys designed for girls, to organizations around the world empowering women to code, women are bringing new perspectives to a male-dominated field.

As a woman in computer science, my classmates are predominantly cis males. There is an unspoken pressure to be the alpha female among the nerdy boys. As someone who never felt traditionally feminine, it seemed empowering to be one of the boys. I grew up with a single-mother who instilled ruthless independence in my sister and me. In high school, I was the token nerd with long frizzy hair, thick metal frame glasses, and braces.

Going to a university that is math and engineering driven has been eye-opening. The students, who had all once been the token nerds in their high school, are placed on pedestals. Without high grades, flashy internships, impressive side projects, and strong technical opinions, I would be invisible to my peers. As a result, I hid my failures and inflated my successes. I was often compared by men to other women in my program. It made me want to be the alpha female - the most badass woman they knew.

Due to the fear of being compared, I avoided being around other women. It became clear to me that I was not the only one doing this. There would be small talk before and after class, but nothing more. Like most of the conversations that took place at school, we would compare grades, solutions—anything that measured “success.” The minute you showed weakness, you would be chastised, especially from men, for not “working hard enough” or having enough “passion”.

In order to be perceived as an equal, I would constantly name-drop video games, computer science theory, and other elements of tech culture into my conversations. I was admired for having nerdy interests and that felt good.

At the same time, I received countless jokes and insults from men about my femininity. I was told that by the time I graduated, I would have a penis. Since having a pixie cut, I have been labelled a boy, lesbian, spinster, and a raging feminist.

Yet these same men would complain to me about not being able to attract women. They would rate and compare women like objects, as if somehow I was manly enough to listen. I was one of the boys and it was not empowering. Women in tech are typecast as either masculine or as a codebabe, a stereotype similar to the ‘sexy librarian.’ We are judged on our appearance before our abilities.

Many, if not all, women in STEM experience some form of emotional, physical, or sexual harassment from their male counterparts. I have experienced both subtle and overt forms of sexism and misogyny, from being dismissed for challenging technical work to being told I was milking my minority status. A few people admitted to befriending me so they could have sex with me.

I never reached out to other women because I was afraid of looking weak. As a mentor to first-year computer science students, I always received questions on academic success and none on failure. It is hard enough to be vulnerable in society. The fact that women cannot be vulnerable to each other due to the constant pressure to be perfect is a huge problem.

This pressure damages your mental health and self-esteem. It makes you feel worthless because you are constantly measuring yourself against others. At a Write/Speak/Code workshop I learned that women blame themselves the most when they experience failure. There are few safe spaces on school campuses and in the workplace for women to resist these pressures.

Women in tech meetups have been safe spaces for me. These women come from different backgrounds; they are students, working in the industry, or changing careers. They are inclusive, open to learning, and recognize the need for women to support each other.

This recent GoldieBlox commercial resonated with me. At the surface, it is an edgy commercial that is empowering girls to pursue engineering. GoldieBlox, the anti-Barbie decked out in overalls and sneakers, is rescuing the mindless, feminine girls dressed in pink from the evil Big Sister, an allusion to George Orwell’s dystopic novel, 1984. There are no boys whatsoever in the commercial. The commercial conveys, perhaps inadvertently, the girl vs. girl mentality in STEM. It suggests that being feminine is weak.

There should be no battle between the Barbie and anti-Barbie. Women should not be duking it out with one another—this encourages men to treat us as stereotypes and not as individuals. It causes us to fear and resent one another. Fixing the problem requires involvement from everyone. The emotional, physical, and sexual harassment faced by women is unacceptable. We should continue to create and promote safe spaces for women of all backgrounds to study and work, as well as report harassment.

If you are a young woman planning on entering a STEM program, it’s important to be aware of the social issues that will be affecting you, and to think about the mentorships, support groups, and workshops that can provide you with strategies, advice, and camaraderie. Participate in your school’s “Women in STEM” equivalent group or create one! Encourage men to get involved in learning about diversity and feminism. Check out Meetup for local workshops hosted by amazing organizations like Women Who Code and Girl Develop It. There are also annual conferences like the GirlGeekCon and Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing with insightful and innovative talks and presentations. Events like these embody the global community of women supporting each other in academia and in the industry. They have shown me that it is alright to be none of the boys and to simply be yourself.

Bio: Julia Nguyen is a developer from Toronto studying computer science at the University of Waterloo. In her spare time, she writes about software development, student life, mental health, and diversity. She is also working on if me, an open-source community for mental health experiences. You can follow her @fleurchild on Twitter.

Tags: media savvy

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