Thoughts on Being a Female Academic in STEM

My lovely office.

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. I did my undergraduate and graduate degrees in STEM, and am currently a tenure-track faculty in the same field. So far, I’ve spent a total of 12 years of my life in STEM (basically since high school).

There aren’t many women in STEM. In my particular sub-field, I would estimate 5-10%. How was my experience? I wanted to dedicate this post to sharing some of my observations from the past 12 years.

Why I went into STEM

I was pretty good at physics and math during high school. I wasn’t the best, but above average. I started off as pre-med like every other good Asian kid, got B’s in organic chemistry and biology,  and bailed after second year. Based on my favorite subjects/what I knew I was good at, I picked my field. Not exactly the “follow your passion” route, but hey, it was practical. I knew about the gender disparity, but to be honest, that was probably a small part of the attraction – the masochism of picking something challenging and trying to prove yourself.

In college

There weren’t many women in my undergrad, but it didn’t have much impact day-to-day. Most of my friends in the department were male, which was fine with me. We studied together, hung out together, and generally had normal friendships. There was extra attention from men who wanted to be “more than friends”, but you get good at detecting and shutting that down quickly.

In graduate school, I had a small but fantastic cohort of women.  The overall fraction of women in my class was still low, but my lab was about half female (a huge rarity!). I was extremely lucky to get to know these women, and we’re still great friends now. They still inspire me with their hard work and dedication.

In the workplace (academia)

It’s here where I’ve noticed a slightly bigger difference. We might be more used to seeing female STEM students, but seeing a woman in a position of authority in academia is uncommon. Some examples: I’ll invite a guest speaker to my class, and we’ll be chatting nicely afterwards, and he’ll ask me how long until I graduate. Or after I introduce myself to a guest, there will be a look of surprise in their eyes (quickly hidden), and the first question will be “how long have you been working here?” Or I’ll be visiting another university to give a talk, and my host won’t know where the women’s restroom is, and we’ll end up walking a mile around the building to find it.

There’s also a question of whether I’m being taken advantage of because I’m a woman. Students will email after a class to beg for lost points. Are they asking because they think I’m likely to be nice? If I give them the extra points, is it because I’m too soft as a woman? I think I tend to over-compensate for being a woman by being slightly strict on my grading. I don’t want to known as the “nice lady teacher”.  In fact, there’ve recently been some studies on this.

These day-to-day experiences are mostly mild – more annoyances rather than real grievances, and they mostly happen with strangers. With collaborators or colleagues, the experience has been good. While there has been a lot of buzz in the news lately about harassment in the entertainment industry, and a little bit of news about harassment in academia, I’m happy to say that personally, I’ve never experienced it.

In the workplace (industry)

That being said, I have had bad experiences. I’m not sure whether it was due to a female/male dynamic, but one company I worked at had a very male-dominated environment. The culture felt stifling – it was hard to pitch new ideas, and it felt as though everyone was out to shoot you down. While pitching and defending your ideas is part of academia, there is a certain aggressiveness that I think may come to men more easily. As a young woman in her first real job (albeit an internship), this company culture was pretty intimidating. While I learned a lot from the job professionally, culturally it wasn’t a good fit.

Public events

The gender disparity really hits you in group settings, like academic conferences or faculty meetings. You look around the room, and it’s a sea of men, and maybe 1-2 women in the room. That gets depressing. If you see a woman, you immediately become curious about who she is – I would say there is some feeling of community.

On the other hand, being a woman can be an advantage. You are more likely to be remembered as a woman, and in academia, reputation is important.  I’ve noticed that if I ask a question during a talk, all the heads swivel around to see the woman who is speaking. Another advantage as a female is that it is easier to approach strangers (e.g., networking in a conference), as I think people are less likely to brush off a woman. It can also be helpful in the grant review process, or in interviews. Although it can’t carry you the whole way, being a woman can tip the scales in your favor between two proposals/candidates that are equally good technically.

What do you think of the gender disparity in STEM fields? Have you personally had any experiences? How can we encourage more women to pursue STEM, both in college and in the workforce?

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