Let me preface this by saying that I love dudes. They’re awesome. The majority of the ones with whom I’ve interacted are intelligent, competent, and supportive of women’s rights. In fact, I know quite a few who would be the first to call someone out on a sexist statement.
But that doesn’t negate the fact that we still have a major problem, especially for the women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).
Problem? What problem? More women are involved in STEM now than a hundred years ago. They’re allowed in pretty much every area of the workforce.
To quote Senator DeHaven in the movie G.I. Jane, “If a cannibal used a knife and fork, would you call that progress too?”
Drop the mic.
Yes, we have made progress in the last hundred years. And let’s reflect on those years for a moment, shall we? Women were not “allowed” to vote until 1920. Basically, you weren’t allowed to determine who else would be telling you “no” every time you wanted to do something.
Women were not “allowed” to apply for a credit card in their own names until 1974 with the advent of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. Yep, you heard right. At that point, you had more work opportunities outside the domestic sphere, but you still couldn’t have as much financial freedom. Heaven forbid if your husband or father couldn’t control your assets.
Women were not “allowed” to attend military academies until 1976. How poetic. In America’s bicentennial year of independence, women were finally given an equal opportunity to attend prestigious military schools that would help prepare them for serving their country. And it only took 200 years.
Women were not “allowed” to press charges on their husbands for raping them until 1993, when marital rape was finally made illegal across the country. That was less than 25 years ago. If he wanted it, he got it. And he didn’t need your permission. Because you weren’t “allowed” to have a say.
We have made progress. And thank you, boys, for “allowing” us to have that progress. But what exactly did this progress achieve for us women? Basic rights. The Declaration of Independence, while I understand is not law but is still held as a bastion of all that America stands for, promises “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
I take that as you have the right to be free to choose what you want to do with your life and define what makes you happy, not what society says will make you happy. That document was penned almost 250 years ago, but we are still fighting to be seen as “created equal with certain inalienable rights.”
Again, the progress we’ve made has been significant. I would much rather be a woman in STEM today than 100 years ago. Reading books like Obsessive Genius about Marie Curie; the Dark Lady of DNA about Rosalind Franklin; and the First Woman Ambulance Surgeon about Dr. Emily Dunning Barringer shed light on just how difficult it was for women to plot their own courses and pursue what THEY determined would make them happy.
Don’t get me wrong; this is not a bash against stay-at-home mothers and housewives. I am a true believer in that no honest work is beneath anyone and all honest work is admirable and valuable towards society.
You want to get married and focus on your home and your family? Awesome!
You want to be a NASA engineer? You go, girl!
You want to be a mail lady? Go rock that blue uniform!
The bottom line is that everyone has the right to pursue their dreams and what is going to make them happy. That is the making of a fulfilled life.
But women in STEM still have to face that uphill battle, as I’m sure women in other fields also have to face. My background is in engineering. In both my undergraduate and graduate programs, a third of the class was female. At my undergraduate institution, there were only two women in the whole department of at least 12 faculty members. When I went away to graduate school, they also had only two women professors but brought in a third during my stay there.
Three women out of approximately 20 professors.
In fact, my alma mater only had one female professor in the department for 20 years before another one joined the ranks.
How’s that for progress?
Even once a female academic achieves the coveted faculty job, the uphill struggle doesn’t end there.
A lot of people think that a professor’s job is to teach. That’s only about 25% true. Actually, it’s probably only 10% true. A professor’s role is to do research, which really translates to writing grants to fund their lab work so their graduate students can do the research.
Ever written a grant? I have. Three times. Each time was like running the garbage disposal with a whole bridal registry’s worth of silverware in the drain. I admire people who do something like that full time, and for whatever reason, that is what I aspire to do. There’s a whole science to grant writing. You have a few pages to explain complicated science, your proposed research, your motivation behind it, and a “tentative” budget and timeline. (I honestly don’t know why budgets and timelines are even required for these things since no one ever really sticks to them.) It’s not a skill you can just pick up on the fly; you need a mentor to help walk you through it and be there to shred apart your first draft and bleed a red marker to death all over it.
And good luck finding a trustworthy mentor with no ulterior motives. There are many out there who really do want to help; but there are also a lot of wolves in sheep’s clothing. Unfortunately, there’s no way to know if that’s who you’re dealing with until you get burned. From what I’ve seen, heard, and experienced, many women are passed over for grants in favor of their male counterparts.
That’s not to say that all women experience severe sexism on a daily basis. I know quite a few women who are movers and shakers in STEM. Every month they seem to have won yet another award, grant, or fellowship. But again, there’s no denying that there’s still a strong bias against women.
I remember having to present some research to representatives of my funding agency, who just so happened to be two men in their fifties or sixties. The research was a collaborative effort between myself and a male colleague, but most of the grunt work had been done by me. That’s not to dis my colleague at all; in fact, he had approached me with the idea in the first place. But I had been the one in the trenches bringing it to fruition.
These two guys couldn’t believe that the project I was presenting was mostly my work. Maybe it was because of my age. At the time, I was exceptionally young to be at that particular rank. But I doubt their comment of “Oh, you mean you’re the assistant, right?” followed by condescending chuckling after finding out that I was in fact not an assistant but a full-fledged researcher would have been directed at me had I been a man.
We’ve made progress but there’s still a wage gap. Women have more choices, but we have to work harder to climb the professional ladder than men who have the same qualifications. We’re told to be assertive so no one pushes us around but are then called “crazy” for standing up for ourselves.
One time, I had a colleague try to bully me into doing everything his way. Eventually I learned to get a mouth (although that sometimes works to my disadvantage) and when the bullying intensifies, I decide it’s time to raise hell. And if they were going to take me down, I would go kicking and screaming.
Would that colleague still have done that to me had I been a man? Maybe. Maybe not. But from my own experience, girls are not encouraged as much as boys to be strong-willed and stubborn. Being a woman in STEM requires a great deal of tenacity and skin thicker than a 2-by-4. Everyone goes through a “proving period,” but be prepared for yours to take longer than normal.
But you know what? That’s ok. Prove you deserve to be there. Prove that you have a lot of valuable and insightful things to say. Right now, we have to work harder. Ok. That’s what we have to deal with. But the more we do and the harder we work, we make it that much easier for the generations who come after us.
Dig in your heels, baby. You got this. And you’ve got the support of women everywhere who want the same thing.
Peace, Prosperity, and Organic Photovoltaics,
Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak