By Inès MezerregWhen I was in elementary school, my teacher asked us to draw something that would represent what we want to be when we grow up. One of my girlfriends drew a princess with a beautiful long pink dress. My other friend, Hugo, drew the moon because he wanted to be an astronaut. I drew a robot because I wanted to build big machines. Seeing this, my girlfriends mocked my drawing, and asked me “Inès, why would you want to draw this? Have you ever seen a princess building a machine?” Though this might seem like an innocent and cute story, it says a lot about misconceptions we all have about gender roles. And this story came back to my mind years later when I started studying engineering.
Do I really fit in? How representation restricts our thinking:I’ve been lucky enough in my life to have had the opportunity to flourish personally and intellectually in the fields I was passionate about. I didn’t take my gender into consideration in my choices or the limits I’ve set to myself. However, when entering prestigious engineering studies in a highly predominant male environment (about 84% of male students), I began unconsciously questioning myself. “Why are there so few women here? Do I really fit in? Am I an outlier?” Doubts like these stem from what I see as a problem of representation: an obvious unbalanced social environment with a lack of diversity and a stable predominant group.
Close your eyes for a moment, and imagine a computer scientist.Did you picture a young man with glasses and a sweatshirt on, or something close? I cannot blame you because I did too. How computer scientists are portrayed in our society (for example in pop culture) and how we envision the environment where they evolve shape and restrict our thinking. This creates a vicious circle where someone from a minority will feel uncomfortable breaking into an unbalanced environment. This hence exacerbates the existing dis-symmetry. When those norms are engraved in our unconscious, we naturally abide by them. This is why my friend from elementary school drew a princess and was a little surprised by my robot. When we’re conscious they exist, challenging the status quo requires extra effort. I used to firmly believe that as long as we’re passionate about our work, the impact of representation is irrelevant. But, I later understood that it plays a key role in making our own path in life. In fact, another underlying problem with a lack of diversity is how it contributes to behaviors that wouldn’t exist outside of this bubble. Social dominance makes it easy for toxic behaviors to hide under the mass. Though most of my male classmates have been absolutely wonderful and respectful, the overall atmosphere could feel incommodious, as jokes about women not being biologically smart enough to study science were made by some. I also found myself in the position where male classmates assumed I got into Centrale Paris (one of France’s top engineering school) because I was a girl, or said I had the higher score in a math oral exam because I was wearing a short skirt. Those are just a few anecdotes among a dozen. This seems surreal now, but as sad as it is, it was largely accepted as a part of the folklore of engineering preparatory classes. Looking back I believe this greatly affected my self-confidence. Now that I’m in a much more balanced environment (the Engineering cohort from my Master’s program at UC Berkeley is 37% female students), I’ve regained my fearlessness. But from time to time, the comments come back to mind and affect my determination.
So why are there so few women in STEM and what can we do?I have to be humble and say that I don’t know for sure. I believe none of us really knows. I can, however, speak from my experience. In addition to all the reasons I mentioned above, I believe this dynamic is governed by power struggles. Did you know that the first computer scientists in the 1940s were all women? This was an underpaid and undervalued job, way before the computer revolution. The least we can say is that time has changed! In fact, it is not about the field in itself, but the impact it has on society. Once we realize its potential, we witness a pattern of women being excluded from exercising power. Given how much science and engineering can offer to the world, we can not allow this to happen once again. We need to stop the vicious cycle. Let women and young girls know their self-worth and not be ashamed to be confident and step up. Promote diversity and let them know at a very young age that the only limit is what they set to themselves, not what norms define. Most importantly, we need to work hand in hand with men and other genders that are as involved as we are in this global issue. I was completely struck when I read The Life of Galileo by Bertolt Brecht a few years ago. It tells the story of Galileo who was tried by the Roman Catholic Church for the promulgation of his scientific discoveries. In fact, if an organization as dominant as the church in the 17th century was trying so vigorously to censor a scientist, then science must have a power that outweighs it. As scientists, we have a tremendous responsibility towards humanity and a power to change the world we cannot begin to realize (for the better but also for the worse). Engineers are writing our future by writing their algorithms. They are improving health by creating medicine. They are also designing the means of transportation for millions of people and ways to store energy. The world’s destiny is shaped by their minds, and we can not allow ourselves to cut half of our resources and potential. As a conclusion, no matter your gender, background, culture or activity, I would like to invite you today, to be a part of this global project at your own scale. Working towards a more equally represented STEM fields is working towards a more equal world. This article relates to my experiences and my personal analysis of the situation. My path and story are unique, like any of us. My only goal is to provide a genuine testimony of what it has been like to be a woman in a male-dominated industry. I am also looking forward to sharpening my vision with more experiences and exchange. Years ahead will also undoubtedly nourish my thinking. Connect with Inès.
Inès Mezerreg: What it’s really like to be a woman in STEM was originally published in Berkeley Master of Engineering on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.