Today is International Women’s Day and I’m celebrating by reflecting on what it has meant to me thus far being a female in STEM.
I currently study geoscience but before that I was an engineer. As a female in engineering I quickly learned that I was a minority. I remember very clearly the first time I admitted this to myself. It was the first day of one of my introductory engineering courses and the professor had all of the students give a brief introduction of themselves to the class. When it came to be my turn I said “Hi, my name is Stephanie, I’m interested in chemical engineering, and in case you didn’t notice, I’m the only woman in the class.” I got some laughs from my classmates (and the professor!) for that one.
During a break in that same class one of the other students came up to me and said, “Is this common, for you to be the only female in an engineering course? That doesn’t seem right.” I was surprised and delighted that my comment impacted at least one student. I then responded with, “well, there are definitely other female engineering undergraduates, and last semester there was one other woman in my programming class”.
I continued to navigate through my program of study, seeing more female students as I advanced to higher level courses. However, we were never the majority. I was the only female in both of my research groups and all but one of my mentors during that time were male. I was lucky though, I never felt like I was treated differently for being female and I was able to succeed.
Following graduation, I spent a few years doing science and technology policy at the Department of Energy. My boss at the time was the Acting Director of the Office of Science, Dr. Patricia M. Dehmer. Dr. Dehmer is one of the most intriguing women I have ever met. She was this petite, softly-spoken woman but she had a prominent, influential presence that demanded respect. She an accomplished scientist and understood the nuances of managing not only people but also complex, large-scale scientific projects.
She was the first woman in a leadership position that I had served under and she taught me some of the most important lessons I would ever learn. I’ll never forget when she told me that when she was a young researcher she was timid like me, but then she realized she would never achieve success if she continued to try and blend into the background. She told me that I was the authority on my projects and actually made me believe that for the first time. She told me that if I expected others to have confidence in my work then I first needed to have some confidence in myself.
I still struggle with confidence issues, but I’ve come a long way since then. I’m no stranger to imposter syndrome (nor is ANY other female graduate student I’ve EVER met). But a lot has changed since that day when I realized I was the only woman in the class. I’m now in a Ph.D. program where most of my extremely impressive colleagues are female, I share a building with some of the most accomplished female geoscience researchers in their respective fields, and even the Director of my School is a woman.
I can’t stress enough the importance for females in STEM disciplines to have people in leadership and mentorship roles that advocate for equality. We don’t just need more diversity throughout the entire academic “pipeline”, we also need a culture of respect and dedication to fair and equal treatment for everyone in STEM and from everyone in STEM.
I think back now to this past holiday season. I was gifted the book “We Should All Be Feminists” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In it, the author argues that feminism shouldn’t be viewed as a negative label available only to needlessly embittered women (as it often is). Instead, feminism should be embraced by all because achieving equality requires equal dedication to it from everyone in a community.