WISE up: My experience with the Women in STEM movement

Samantha Patten/Staff

Recently, the women in STEM fields on campus have been making strides. Earlier this year, UC Berkeley hosted its first women in blockchain conference, drawing more than 350 attendees and matching young women with experienced professionals. Then, nearing summer, the university announced its appointment of the first female dean of the College of Engineering, Tsu-Jae King Liu, who promises to continue diversity initiatives. Finally, according to campus records, for the current freshman class, there was an incredible 28 percent increase in women admitted into the College of Engineering.

These are monumental steps toward gender equality in STEM fields, and I, as a female engineer, am proud of how far gender equality has come — but at the same time, I, as an engineer alone, have struggled a lot with having my experiences ignored because I’m labeled as a female, as one within the minority.

Is Engineering Only for Boys?

When I was a kid, I always saw engineering as a “boys’ thing.” It wasn’t that I had ever been discouraged or put down, and I had even been in math club, which already introduced me to a male-dominated environment at an early age — but for some reason, maybe through cartoons or conversations I’d overheard, engineering and women weren’t things that I believed intersected often. So when my mom encouraged me to join robotics, I outright refused. I didn’t want to be the only girl.

What caused me to believe that only boys did robotics and engineering? I recall the differences in cartoon shows I consumed as a child: shows such as “Power Rangers” and “Transformers” targeted boys, while shows such as “The Powerpuff Girls” and “Hello Kitty” targeted girls. And the forms of media that targeted boys tended to showcase interests we normally associate with guys, such as cars, machines and cool technology — all of which might spark early interest in engineering. The shows that targeted girls, though, lacked that same focus on technology, often involving princesses, anthropomorphic characters and fantasy instead.

When I was young, I liked both types of cartoons and was briefly interested in cars, but when my parents saw me watching “Power Rangers” and naming cars on the road, they were surprised. They jokingly questioned if I was a son, and from that reaction, I gauged that perhaps it wasn’t normal behavior for a girl, that perhaps engineering was something meant for men and that robotics would involve only boys. There was some sort of proof of this statement around me as well; math club, with a skewed gender ratio, was the only place people ever mentioned STEM topics.

 I wanted to prove that I was just as good as anyone else, as any guy, so if they didn’t have such a crutch, I wouldn’t either.

My mom convinced me to go to an open house, and after seeing for myself that I wouldn’t be one of the only girls, I ended up joining robotics. My interest in engineering sparked and I began getting increasingly involved in the STEM community, from attending math camps over the summer to joining myriad clubs at school. The gender ratio was never great, maybe 70-30 at best, but it stopped bothering me as I got used to it; in fact, I refused to join clubs that specifically focused on including women in STEM, seeing it as a crutch I didn’t want to use — a lot of the people I interacted with looked down on such clubs as well as the overall gender equality movement with disdain.

When someone I highly respected won an award, they’d comment, “Yea, sure, she did well in the European Girls’ Math Olympiad, but that’s the Girls’ Math Olympiad; if they allowed guys, she definitely wouldn’t have done that well.”

When I or another woman who “wasn’t as smart” got an officer position in a STEM organization, I’d later hear them jokingly clarify to other people, “The officer body can’t be all guys, you know — gotta be diverse!”

Even when they got rejected from engineering colleges, they’d pin it on gender-based affirmative action, always complaining, “Dude, if I was a girl, I definitely would’ve gotten into ____. It’s so much easier to get in as a woman. It’s just so unfair.”

I hated being a woman sometimes; I wanted to prove that I was just as good as anyone else, as any guy, so if they didn’t have such a crutch, I wouldn’t either. I avoided ever saying that I was a “woman in tech,” holding my tongue in frustration when they belittled another women’s accomplishments, forcing down the discomfort I sometimes felt when I was one of four women in a room and focusing my energy on making sure no one thought I only got what I had because I was a woman.

And because of that experience, I also disliked people who kept drawing attention to the movement: I was trying to dispel the notion that being a woman was something that companies and schools focused on and thus something that boosted my chances at success. I was trying to blend in with everyone, or what I thought was “everyone,” and just be one of the guys — and it felt like the people who proudly declared themselves to be women in STEM were undermining what I was trying so hard to prove. Suddenly, the fact that I was a woman overshadowed all the work I had put in to build my own skills.

Steminism Presents

As I went through my freshman year, I began opening up about my own thoughts and questioning the perspective I so firmly held, and now especially, I realize how prideful I was. I had isolated myself from support, thrown myself into a toxic community that refused to see past gender and let them cause doubt in my own abilities. And in college, I’ve come to realize just how important it is to have more women in tech; while men and women might have the same abilities, for some reason, the way they perceive things are different. In particular, the article “Gender Differences in Seeking Challenges: The Role of Institutions” by Muriel Niederle and Alexandra Yestrumskas finds, “Intuitively, women are more likely to attribute failures to lack of ability and successes to good luck.” On the flip side, men are more likely to attribute failures to bad luck and successes to high ability. This means that women are much more uncertain of their own abilities in comparison to men, are more likely to psych themselves out and are less likely to speak out and take the harder challenge. They face a different set of challenges that might be mitigated by having mentors and role models who understand these challenges and can help them face them; this is especially useful at an early age, when interest in STEM can be retained and developed.

This is why organizations for women’s support as well as outreach is so important.

“You hear so many things about how women are less likely to do as well as men in engineering or women are more likely to leave the workforce than men are in engineering fields,” said Louise Feng, vice president of outreach for the Society of Women Engineers, or SWE, on campus. “These facts are presented so that we can create change and so that people can be cognizant of the problems.”

To create this change, SWE provides almost 10 separate outreach efforts for local students, from introductory science carnivals for elementary school students; to coding programs for middle school students; to an intensive engineering curriculum for high school students that culminates in a final project. Members act as both educators and role models, encouraging young girls to enter STEM through both lessons and through their presence as successful female engineers.

“By being able to expose these girls early, we can build confidence from early on so that they know that they’re capable,” Feng said regarding the mission of the group’s community outreach.

And they have been making a big impact: According to Feng, one of the parents of a girl told SWE committee members that he hadn’t seen his daughter so excited about academics in a very long time. Other students of the program matriculate as undergraduates in the College of Engineering at Berkeley.

Checks and Imbalances 

But, at the same time, the women in STEM movement can be a double-edged sword; all the time, we hear all sorts of discouraging information, from the gender ratio to traumatic experiences, and professor Gireeja Ranade of the electrical engineering and computer sciences, or EECS, department argues that perhaps this information is unneeded. Perhaps, there is value in remaining uninformed of the depth of the gender disparity, as she and her classmates were while growing up. Ranade talks about how in college, she never bothered counting the number of women in her school, never knew about the ratio in the industry, and never considered a different environment being possible — but it was at no cost to her experience. In our conversation, she paralleled this experience with what she witnesses now:

“You’re in Berkeley, you’re in your bubble, taking your classes with your group of friends, and you’re not necessarily aware of (the issues) at this other company far away, like childbirth, the wage gap or some kind of harassment. You’re focused on … learning the most you can and doing the best work you can do in your environment,” Ranade explained. “One of the things that (women in STEM) awareness has done is make people more aware of problems they’re not facing now, but problems they might face in the future.”

Just by continuously promoting the movement, it gives off the impression to kids that the gender disparity is so bad that they need to have a movement in the first place — something that might actually scare them away from pursuing their passion. After all, why enter a field that seems so imbalanced?

“There’s a lot of value in having this warning before it hits you. But at the same time, sometimes, it makes you afraid when you’re not sure why you should be afraid — when, from your local perspective, it’s all fine. … Sometimes I worry if somebody’s going to be turned off,” Ranade added.

In the end, I still find the impact of the women in STEM movement incredible. Professor Ranade talks about how the sheer number of women in EECS classes has been improving alongside the class size and how the proportion of women itself has also been inching its way up; in my own experiences, as I go through my curriculum at UC Berkeley, I never really feel like a minority. I work with other women on homework and projects all the time, and I feel comfortable when I work with men, too. There are female EECS faculty members, including Ranade herself, and the overall culture is shifting to become more welcoming.

But, at the same time, there are issues that I see arising: an opposing reaction in men, the generalization of what’s it like being a woman in tech and a possible rise in self-doubt.

“…But at the same time, sometimes, it makes you afraid when you’re not sure why you should be afraid.” —  Gireeja Ranade

Some of my friends now make self-deprecating comments, such as “I only got this because I’m a girl,” or “There’s no way I would’ve gotten it if I were a guy.” In a sense, because the focus is always on hiring and recruiting more and more women, the movement actually causing women to doubt their own abilities. I remember that when I received my offer, I wondered if it was a diversity initiative — to this day, I still wonder if they actually saw value in my skills or if they lowered their standards and let me in just so they could promote some statistics on their website.

But no matter what the reason is, I’m still confident in my skills and in my passion. I’m here studying STEM because I genuinely enjoy it, and despite the doubt I faced and still face, I know that even if I was accepted as part of a diversity initiative, I can overturn any preconceived notions of me with the code I write and the work I accomplish. My friends know that, too, and so do the 28 percent more women freshmen and transfers; and hopefully, anyone of any gender interested in STEM will come to realize it, too.

Contact Candace Chiang at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @candace_chiang.