Op-ed submission: Discrimination in STEM

16 current students and alumni

As a woman majoring in systems engineering and hoping to enter the medical profession, a lack of representation of minorities and women is something that has become normal to me. Many will offer criticisms and counterarguments that assert there is no discrimination in these fields because there is no blatant discrimination. I am here to assert that this is not the issue—the issue is that the discrimination is subtle and underhanded. It is an increase in pressure when you are the only woman of color in a classroom because you feel that your performance is representative of everyone who shares your identity. You feel that if you fail, you will simply become another girl who thought she could make it. Your failure will not only reflect on you but will then reinforce a stereotype that is assigned to you because of how you look. The reason that representation is important is because it relieves some of that pressure. Suddenly, I am not the only one; others can see that, and, hopefully, this will work to remove those stereotypes. It would mean that we might no longer hear dumb blonde jokes, we might be the ones who code instead of record, we might be considered in high regard automatically without having to prove ourselves. What we are saying is not that we are always actively told we aren’t good enough but that your actions speak louder than your words.

To the physics department, if this debacle has not been enough to make your course of action clear, let me state it here: Hire a woman and tenure her. Please let that woman be a woman of color. Please let that woman be a woman who identifies as LGBTQIA*. Please let that woman be a woman who does not hold the privilege of ability. Let her be whoever she may be, but understand that your hiring practices should be intersectional. Understand that this should not be the end but the beginning of a series of hires of minorities in this department and others.

I am not here to present articles or studies; I am here to elevate the voices of the people who these practices affect. I believe that the testimonials of students here, at our institution, should be more powerful than any study could be. These are your classmates, friends, students, teaching assistants, resident advisors, Washington University Student Associates and so much more. These people are leaders on our campus and should not be made to feel unwelcome in their own field of study. They should not feel like they have to prove themselves: They belong where they are, and that is that.

“Discrimination in STEM is always present. It is a subtle issue that I deal with daily yet try to ignore. Any minority in STEM understands these difficulties; however, we become accustomed to the mistreatment. Before I walk into a professor’s office hours, I have to remind myself that my professor feels that I am inadequate. When I work in all white, male groups, I have to remember that no matter how hard I work, they will always ‘act’ like they know more information than me or treat me as a lesser person. In STEM, I know I will always be one of the few in my field due to the constant stress comes that with being a minority female in one of the most demanding fields.” -Ramona Durham, Biomedical Engineering ‘17

“In my junior year of school, I took the required engineering math course for my major. One evening during an exam, I raised my hand to ask a question, following the protocol many of my fellow classmates were using. My professor, a white male, looked up from his seat in the front of the room, looked me in the eye, then returned his attention to his computer and proceeded to ignore me. He would get up throughout the evening to address other students’ questions in the room, continually passing by my raised hand and ignoring me completely.

Female students of color in STEM experience situations like this throughout their college experience. Perhaps not every day or in every class, but even one interaction like this one can start to make you believe that you are less than and don’t belong in a certain class, major or even at this school at all. Many women may feel discouraged from pursuing science related fields and eventually switch majors, not because of a lack of intelligence or interest, but simply because you have been told you cannot do it. I know I have often felt this way. However, if we truly seek to create new, innovative technologies and ideas, we will need more diverse talent to do so, not less. Therefore, it is important to cultivate diversity in STEM fields, both within the study body and in the faculty. Because when you are sitting in a science lecture, or attending faculty advising hours, it’s nice if occasionally one of these professors actually looks like you.” -Imani Paul, Biomedical Engineering ’17, Olin Business School MBA ‘18

“I would consider myself a serious student; I’ve been on the dean’s list every semester of college thus far. I don’t believe only non-“serious” students are affected by the male dominance of many STEM fields. I’ve been the only girl in a multitude of my engineering/math classes, and I will freely admit it makes me uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable being the only girl in a group project; it’s also uncomfortable feeling left out when the professor cracks a joke tailored for men, and you feel like you can’t laugh. When I’ve been the only girl in a group project, I’ve always consciously altered my appearance to make myself less feminine so that I get taken more seriously. Otherwise, I typically get assigned to completing a trivial task for the project rather than making a tangible contribution.

It’s discouraging when you have no (or few) female professors in your field because there’s no one to encourage you and prove to you that it is possible to succeed. Sure, I can look up to male professors, but it’s not quite the same. They haven’t had to deal with unintentional (or intentional) misogyny, the overt sexual harassment many find acceptable or the unending comments on physical appearance, even though that has no bearing on the situation at hand. I doubt a man has ever been told, ‘You’re too pretty to be an engineer!’ or ‘Wow, I can’t believe you like math! Beauty and brains, what a combination!’ While those might sound like compliments, it’s insulting that my appearance should have any relation to my intelligence.” -Anonymous, Systems Engineering and Math ‘17

“A sexist teacher and watching sexualization of the only female physics teacher. Though a good portion of my graduating class in physics was girls—fun fact.” -Mira Hanfling, Physics ‘16

“I was at home a few months ago in Massachusetts, helping my mom run a yard sale. I was making friendly conversation with some of the customers, just to make the time go by. At one point, I was talking to a man—around 50 years old, white. He asked me about my schooling, and I told him that I was studying math and computer science, and planning on earning a master’s degree in computer science next year. He asked me what I wanted to ‘do’ with that once I graduated, and I said that I wanted to go into software development.

He looked at me and said: ‘Oh, I hope not! You can’t do that … You’re a woman! And you’re not Asian!’

I think he meant this statement as a joke, but it made me angry. Who was this person to say that, as a woman, I couldn’t do what I was passionate about? I managed to keep it together and say something along the lines of ‘Well, I guess I’ll be breaking the stereotype, then,’ because I didn’t want to scare away a potential customer.” -Sophie Veksler, Mathematics and Computer Science ‘17

“I worked in a research lab at the medical school throughout all four years of college, including every summer. Despite that medicine is a field of science in which there actually are a lot of women, and that my personal instructor (male) was generally supportive and helpful as a mentor (and definitely was never overtly sexist), I still found myself in an uncomfortable situation one day. It was the summer between my freshman and sophomore years, and I had been working in the lab for about 9 months. My PI had hired another undergraduate student (male) to work in the lab just for the summer. At our first lab meeting of the summer, my PI told the male undergraduate student that the lab was gearing up to write a couple of papers over the summer and that he could get involved in writing one of them if he was interested in getting published. Meanwhile, I was sitting right there, with more experience in the lab, watching a brand-new student get an explicit offer to get published, while I had never been offered the same thing. I felt awkward all day. Finally, the next day, I talked to the post-doctorate (female) who was spearheading one of the papers and asked if the same invitation applied to me, and she immediately said yes. Ultimately, I wound up getting published as well. However, I had to ask for the opportunity, while a male student with less experience had the opportunity presented to him directly. I can’t help but feel that my male PI accidentally overlooked the possibility that I had the ambition to get published as an undergraduate in part because I am female. Even though my PI’s failure to extend the invitation to me was entirely accidental, a woman who was less confident, or less familiar with the post-doc in her lab, might not have felt comfortable speaking up and asking for the opportunity. That lost opportunity at age 19 could have made the difference between getting published during undergrad and not getting published, which can subsequently make the difference between getting into a great graduate/medical school and getting into a mediocre one. This in turn can affect future job prospects. Ultimately, an accident that seems minor can affect a woman’s entire career.” -Anonymous, Pre-med ‘16

“Feeling like I wasn’t good enough to study STEM, feeling inadequately prepared compared to male students in large lecture classes (even when I did just as well or better than them), knowing that people like Jonathan Katz will sneer that earth science and biology are not the “hard sciences” because they are the most gender equal even though they are just as technically difficult, feeling like I’ve proved Katz’s point that women aren’t made for physics by not choosing it as a major even though I’m perfectly capable of studying theoretical physics: It just isn’t where my interests currently lie.” – Maggie Weng, Environmental Earth Science ‘19

“I grew up loving and excelling at science and math but not in college. Women being discouraged from going into STEM fields is a real thing.” -Anonymous, Global Health ‘19

“In his April 16 op-ed, Katz wrote, ‘Serious students … regard this as a stimulating challenge to prove themselves,’ if they look different from their professor. Does this not insinuate that the second women or people of color step foot into your classroom, they are on a lower tier than their white male peers? So, you may be right—that they must work harder in hopes of being taken just as seriously. But you are wrong about it being ‘stimulating.’ It is exhausting. If I ask my professor to double-check a grade, am I nagging them? If I hold my ground in a group project, will they think I’m bossy or a b—-? If I make a mistake in class, will others think I’m dumb? If I write about these concerns I have, am I now just a whiny girl who needs to toughen up? Katz is at least right about one thing—it’s a challenge.

One thing I love is the camaraderie of women in STEM. In my experience, we are always willing to lend a hand to each other, whether prompted or not. We know there is strength in numbers, no matter how small the numbers may be.” -Caryn Devaney, Mechanical Engineering ‘17

“It astounds me that Katz, a physics professor at Washington University, is claiming that discrimination against women in STEM does not exist. I experienced discrimination as a bisexual woman in STEM from both students and professors while at Wash. U. Before coming to Wash. U., I participated in a fully-funded summer research program with 20 other incoming freshmen. When I was paired with the most-sought-after research mentor, a male classmate exclaimed, ‘You got [PI name left out for confidentiality]?’ in disbelief. That was the first of many condescending interactions I had with male classmates in the STEM fields at Wash. U. Not all were explicit; other male classmates, even some of my friends, would speak over me, refuse to believe my explanation of a homework problem until it was verified by another male classmate and grumble about how it was going to be more difficult for them to get into graduate school because of their gender. And these were only remarks I heard in person—not the anonymous hate speech I saw on Yik Yak and [the Facebook page] Overheard at WashU.

And STEM faculty members, especially the older male professors, were often no better. I remember my shock and discomfort when our Introduction to Biology professor broke off into a tangent after discussing Mendelian genetics, telling the girls in the class not to get so upset about miscarriages because most women have a miscarriage in their first pregnancy, and it’s ‘not that big of a deal.’ At the time, I wasn’t sure what made me so uncomfortable about that statement; I just nervously chuckled with the rest of the room and went about my day. But thinking back four years later, I am horrified by this professor’s carefree intrusion into my life, his assumption that I would have a child, and his notion that if I got upset about a miscarriage, that that would be unreasonable. That same professor later insisted that everyone was either a girl or a boy, couching his comments with some sheepish sentences about the ‘politically correct climate nowadays.’ As a bisexual woman with many genderqueer friends, I was disappointed but not surprised by his ignorant comments. I had come to expect that patriarchal sort of attitude from most of my male STEM classmates and professors. I took refuge in my anthropology classes and was pleasantly surprised by male STEM classmates who treated me with respect.

I graduated in the spring and will be starting medical school in the fall, a field with a historically hierarchical teaching structure and a slow-moving effort to acknowledge the power dynamic inherent in the doctor-patient relationship. I am planning to join diversity committees, serve on LGBTQIA* boards and fight to help make both the medical school class and the curricula reflect the diversity that is inherent in our society. But until the Katzs of the world recognize their privilege and see the discrimination that is all around them, we will only be preaching to the choir. Comfortably privileged students will continue to complain about diversity requirements, female students will continue to have to explain why their educational career paths took so long or had so many breaks and ignorant primary care physicians will continue to unwittingly drive mistrust in the healthcare system.

It is not good enough to just share stories of discrimination. It’s a start, but one that can be written off as anecdotal or program-specific. We need to recognize the discrimination that is taking place, check the biases and assumptions of the historically male-dominated STEM fields, and actively support those of us who don’t have the energy to continually fight the power and write lengthy Facebook posts. I am so proud of the young feminists and activists at Wash. U. who are bringing this misogyny to light; keep fighting.

tl;dr Discrimination is alive and well in Wash. U. STEM, and we need to do something about it.” -Allison Rhodes, Alumni, B.A. in Biochemistry (Biology) and Global Health (Anthropology) in May 2016

“No story, just an everyday experience of being the last one picked in a group project and the one that is automatically suggested to do the user internface or design rather than the backend code of a project. It’s upsetting, demoralizing, and I cannot wait to get out of this and become their PM or VP Eng and, quite literally, show them who’s boss.” -Elaine, Computer Science ‘18

In collecting these stories, I received submissions from those who did not believe that discrimination existed in the field of STEM. These are arguments that come up often when having this discussion. My personal take on some of the arguments made here is that, yes, women and people of color want to be judged based on our intellect rather than our identities, but it’s more complicated than that. The students who shared their stories above and the ones who didn’t are not asking for special treatment. I am not asking for your sympathy but your compassion. I am asking you to listen to your words when you speak them to me, to consider your actions and whether or not they are inclusive, to understand that sometimes the things that you say and do can be hurtful even though you may not think so. With that, here are the opinions and stories of those who do not believe that representation in STEM is an issue.

“I got a bad score on my previous test because I didn’t sufficiently understand the material, rather than any identity of mine.” -Anonymous, Computer Science Engineering

“I’ve never experienced any discrimination in the field. Stop trying to pretend every woman is a victim.” -Anonymous, Biomedical Engineering ‘18

“As a person of color, I have not perceived any discrimination in any pursuits in the STEM field so far. What I’ve found is that success in STEM is dependent on setting a goal and working hard toward that goal. Furthermore, I do not see how discrimination, real or perceived, impedes one’s ability to excel academically or think analytically. I’m sure there are instances in which discrimination against women/people of color hinders individuals in STEM, but to say there is systematic discrimination in the entire field (today, not in the 1950s) is probably untrue.

Take the medical field, for example: Medical school classes are increasingly split across gender, if not leaning in favor women. Furthermore, minority status is an ADVANTAGE while applying to medical school.” -Anonymous, alumni in the medical field

“I am a black man. I prefer to be judged on the basis of my work than the color of my skin. Students—and researchers, professors, etc.—should be viewed as human, not a specific race (we are all one race). I find it troubling and unnecessary that we have made such a deal about having diversity in STEM. The results produced are what matters, not the way the person looks. With that said, I have not faced discrimination in my pursuit of science and believe that this discussion only creates further division.” -Steven, Physics ‘19

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