When society refers to the STEM field, the same names appear. Benjamin Franklin, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin; the list goes on and on. However, one group always seems to be missing from this endless list of influential thinkers: women. When society thinks of famous scientists, they immediately think of Albert Einstein instead of Marie Curie. This stereotype is found everywhere, from books to movies to social media. But why is that? Society automatically labels women as inferior to men simply because they are not deemed “suitable” for careers in STEM. Women do not fit this century-old and male-dominated ideal of who a “perfect” scientist, mathematician or engineer should be. If we look more closely, these stereotypes can even be found on the one campus we call home.
It is no secret that Virginia Tech is known for its nationally ranked STEM departments. Undergraduates from all over the country come here for the various STEM-related programs and research opportunities available to students.
Camille Do, a senior geosciences major, recounts how it initially felt to enter a male-dominated field at Virginia Tech.
“In general, there has been some casual racism, sexism, ableism and homophobic comments hidden as jokes,” she said. “They don’t realize how inferior it makes others feel.”
Do refers to this feeling as imposter syndrome.
“Even just being talked over, having your words ignored or just subtly swept aside, created this feeling … like I don't belong here or I’m not good enough,” she said.
This comes as no surprise as many women pursuing careers in STEM are subjected to similar experiences, especially women of color like Wynnie Avent, a senior geosciences major and founder and president of the Black Students in STEM organization on campus.
“One of the hardest things is getting people to take me seriously,” Avent said.
Women of color in STEM face many additional challenges. There are even situations in which women of color are overlooked because of language.
“Because you’re white and you speak in the way that is expected of the field, you’re getting credit and attention even though I just said exactly what you just said but in (African American Vernacular English) terms,” Avent said.
Whether it be as subtle as a microaggression, an overlooked comment or a sexist insult, no woman should be treated in a way that results in a sense of inferiority, especially within a college campus.
The college experience is about meeting new people, diving into new experiences and pursuing new passions. However, this does not always apply to women in STEM as they are often forced to overcome additional obstacles in order to prove themselves within their field.
“Being the only female of color in my department, for a while, it was kind of lonely,” Do said. “Sometimes when you’re pursuing a path that is uncommon for people of your background, you can lose yourself from focusing so much that you forget to do things that make you happy.”
Women, specifically college students, should not have to bear witness to self doubt and imposter syndrome. At first it may seem easy to push these problems away and act as though they don’t exist, but this only reinforces the power of gender discrimination.
"It wasn't until I started losing myself by pushing away my problems that I realized that this had to stop," Do said.
Instead of submitting to the stereotypes of this male-dominated culture, Do worked to maintain a balance between taking care of herself and prioritizing school.
In addition to self-care practices, women in STEM can also find support through multiple resources offered by Virginia Tech. From integrative research opportunities to Cook Counseling workshops, Virginia Tech has multiple resources that are available to students. Both cite research experiences as one of the most helpful resources as she has been able to work with others in her field in a collaborative setting.
“One on one attention and undergraduate research really helped to jumpstart my academic career and helped me find a bunch of internships and opportunities that I would not have had otherwise,” Avent said.
It is important for female students to know that they are not alone. Dealing with societal pressures is a constant struggle, and it is reassuring that Virginia Tech supports an environment in which women have power to ask for help when needed.
“Having Cook Counseling and SSD accommodations so readily available to students has been very useful,” Do said. “If you have needs that can be met, Virginia Tech provides that very easily.”
Despite these resources, the student body of Virginia Tech still has a ways to go until all women are treated equally within the STEM field. It is ironic that all of these resources are available to students, yet women continue to face gender-based discrimination within the student body on campus. Women should have the freedom to pursue a career in STEM without having to face these challenges on a daily basis.
“At the root of what needs to change is normalizing difficult conversations and more initiation of women in these conversations,” Do said.
Every student is part of the larger Virginia Tech community, and only until we work together and support a more inclusive environment, will women finally have this freedom. We cannot simply wait around for change to come. We must acknowledge our mistakes and invest in these conversations to push change forward.
“I would like to see a push of women in STEM and in sciences that aren’t as popular … we need female physicists and we need female chemists, so I would definitely like to see a push in these other sciences where there isn’t as much of a gender balance,” Avent said.
Women are underrepresented in many STEM fields, but smaller departments such as physics, chemistry and mathematics have even fewer. A larger investment in these smaller departments can help bring more awareness to the gender inequality present within the field.
If Do and Avent offer women beginning a career in STEM advice, it’s to remember the power of resilience.
“Don’t let anyone deter you from your passion,” Avent said.
“Being able to find a community that is like you and that is trying to achieve the same goal is going to be your biggest motivator,” Do said. “You're good enough. Demand for what you want, and don't hesitate.”
It is inevitable to encounter challenges as a woman in STEM, but with mentors such as these leading the way, the community can revolutionize the way women are represented in this field on campus.