A Rude Awakening
In bygone days, I hadn't truly felt the imbalance of power between genders in a formal setting. Typically choosing to surround myself with those pertaining to the liberal party and those who have acknowledged the injustice in the political system and want change, the most resistance I had encountered was from teenage boys attempting to find refuge behind the light of a computer screen while throwing verbal attacks in my general direction out of envy of my personal successes. It was at a high school club's leadership conference, of all places, that I could feel the ghost of the struggle that women in STEM face every day.
Seated in a university's recently built student center room was about 100 of our state's technology club's executive board members--about 5-6 members for every school's chapter. The room itself was light, roomy, and buzzing with activity as it was filled with teenagers who had just indulged in an all-you-can-eat breakfast (while reminding themselves to remain poised, as they were all wearing their best suits and blazers), and were eager to start the day's activities.
Seated among this crowd of young leaders was me, Aparna, impatiently tapping my foot, waiting for the ceremony to begin, and self-consciously nipping at some muffin or strudel. I was seated at a table with my chapter's fellow executive board members and our only adult supervisor, and I was becoming hyperaware of the fact that I was the only girl on our executive board.
This sort of imbalance was never typically something I found unnerving in my daily life--I was used to conversing and associating myself with boys with STEM-related backgrounds. While seated at this table, I really started to recognize that despite the number of girls in STEM programs I was collaborating with, I typically aligned myself with my male counterparts when it came to the social setting within tech, especially in robotics.
I realized that this habit had followed me into my choice in companionship at robotics events as well. Did this make me a bad feminist? Shouldn't I be socializing with more girls at STEM events? It was then that I realized the real issue behind this: there simply weren't enough girls involved. Out of the 180 FIRST Tech Challenge robotics teams registered in our state, I could only name 6 all-girls teams (two of which, might I add, are my own and sister teams). As for the co-ed teams, a boy from a team in Massachusetts recalled his experience: "In order to get more girls to join our almost all dude robotics team, one of our members messaged a bunch of girls and told him he was gay. It did not work". Another boy from Australia stated, "No girls in my school could honestly care about robotics or STEM in general", and although I didn't say this to him, I highly doubt this is the case. It is likely due to the fact that the male to female proportion is already so off in so many adolescent co-ed STEM programs that girls are put off posthaste by the idea of joining the team. As one FTC mentor stated: "Our FRC team is just ridiculously toxicly male which doesn't help". He had also recalled that "As a mentor to an all girls team, it is a LOT easier to recruit girls that way [than for] a co-ed team", which aligns with the previous explanation. Girls want affirmation that other girls are involved.
Being the only girl on the executive board from our chapter is certainly an interesting experience. I had gotten used to the first bumps, chest bumps, and outré handshakes, guys generally acting as though they were all on the same secret football team--the typical "boys being boys" thing. What irked me, however, was being ignored. Not once or twice, but consistently ignored, as though the sounds coming out of my mouth were blending in with the background noise. It was a frustrating experience: speaking up and voicing my ideas, only for those around me to act as though I hadn't said a word. About half way into building a mechanism for a competition that was taking place at this event, I had shared an idea about our task at hand, only to be completely ignored. A few minutes later, a boy from our group brought up the same idea, and he was commended by the team. I was flustered. After a few more attempts at bringing up my ideas, I moved onto more aggressive efforts. I would remain relatively quiet about my ideas until the rest of the group would recognize a flaw in their design. It was at times like these, I realized, that people were most open to new ideas. I would wait for these moments, and then I would bring up my ideas.
Although the process worked, it was frustrating, and most certainly would not be feasible in larger tasks. These sort of small difficulties, I realized in that moment, were everyday occurrences for many women in STEM across the world. This wasn't the worst of it, of course. There are a countless number of cases of women not being paid as well as men for the same jobs, and then there are all the women finally gaining the confidence to speak up about being sexually harassed in the work place.
It is important that we speak up about our experiences--never let your voice fall silent. We must come together to work through the systematic sexism present in our daily lives. It is even more important that we do not give up. It can be difficult, but we must persevere.