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Nov 20 2017
by Nikki Frazer

10 Things Women in STEM Have Heard Throughout Their Degree

By Nikki Frazer - Nov 20 2017

STEM, or Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, is a large field that is greatly celebrated as having challenging and important subjects. Unfortunately, a critical flaw in how STEM is marketed and internally thought about is that it is heavily gender-biased. Women, and often other genders deemed 'feminine,' are constantly fighting against sexist comments, discouragement, unfair favoritism and uncalled-for judgement. Not only are they having to deal with the baseline troubles in STEM including increasing coursework amounts, class hours and difficult subject matter, but they also have to deal with negative comments, questions and actions towards them. These issues are being kept alive by not only external members of society, but also by other people in the STEM field. Here are 10 frustrating things women in STEM have heard throughout their degree. 

1. The humanities department is down there.


This statement is often said to me by a male peer assuming that I was lost by being in a lab or mathematics lecture. It has the sexist implication that the humanities are viewed as the most feminine field, and that I, as a female, most likely belong there. This is harmful thinking because it not only stereotypes women as belonging in a certain field, which is exclusionary to women in STEM, but it also implies that men do not belong in the humanities which is also harmful to other stereotypes. 

2. So you're going to be a teacher then?


After telling someone that I major in STEM, this is the most common response that I receive. Maybe I could be a teacher, but I could also be an engineer, physicist, doctor or even go to space if I wanted to. The fact that this question is asked mainly to women and other genders by men just reinforces the stereotype that if women are in STEM, then they cannot compete at the same level as men. This is, of course, harmful and incorrect thinking. Women in STEM should have equal opportunities as men. 

3. You know your program is really competitive, right?


This question almost always comes from someone in a completely different field, and is aggravating because it diminishes my expertise in my own field and implies that I am oblivious. This question is posed to men less frequently than women and carries the sexist undertone that women are somehow more fragile or unable to handle competition as well as men. 

4. Why are you here? 


This question is often asked bluntly, either by peers or by people after I tell them what I am studying. It is insulting because men are not expected to provide a reason for their decision to study in their field, yet women are constantly expected to defend their interest in their STEM field. 

5. So, are you single?


This question is usually posed right in the middle of a conversation that was going well about an assignment or theory discussion and takes away the value of my thoughts and ideas and replaces them with an unwanted expectation to respond to an professionally-inappropriate question. This is insulting because it takes women out of their professional role and places them on the spot with an expectation to reply to an inappropriate question. 

6. Wow, you're like the only girl here. 


I am painfully aware of the gender imbalance in my classes. The feeling of being singled out can make studying and working uncomfortable and anxiety-inducing, and is unfair to be placed on students. 

7. So you're going to be a female ____________?


There's no need to put female in front of that profession. Just as you would not say "male doctor" or "man-chemist." The addition of the gender label takes women and other genders off of the same level as men, and separates them unjustly. 

8. This must be really challenging for you. 


The underlying implication here is that the content is especially challenging for me in particular because of my gender. While the content in STEM majors is often difficult, what is wrong with this question is that it is placing emphasis on the fact that I am somehow different than my male peers and require special consideration. However, students should be treated with the same expectations regardless of their gender. 

9. But you don't look like you study STEM.


I didn't realize my looks defined my interests. The background of this comment comes from the idea that people who look a certain way, or are deemed attractive or unattractive, belong in a certain profession. This is an inappropriate and sexist judgement that should not be allowed in any field, including STEM. 

This suggestion is attributed to Hannah Kohut, who is studying mathematics and has been an amazing role model for incoming women in her field. 

10. Maybe if you acted dumber you might get asked out more.


The idea that a competent, skilled and focused woman is intimidating or unattractive is unfortunately a classic concept that stems from the patriarchy. However, the negative reception successful women receive from peers comes from jealousy and the idea that they can not do better in STEM fields than men. 

This suggestion is attributed to Cassidy Kohut, who's sarcastic replies help me deal with frustrating comments like these. 

I hope these examples made you mad. I hope they made you feel better if you have ever experienced similar comments. And I hope that this article inspired you to speak up next time you hear anything along these lines. Change starts with recognizing and then acting. Remember to act. 

Lead Image Credit: Pixabay

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Nikki Frazer - University of Toronto

Nikki is a student at the downtown campus of the University of Toronto studying Physics and Philosophy. She loves the wilderness of her home in B.C, as well as the energy of the biggest city in Canada!

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