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Girls can’t what?!: sexism in STEM classrooms

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By Stephanie Wang

Sure, I see statistics on the clear disparity in the number of women going into STEM fields, hear horror stories of sexism in the workplaces of tech giants, and notice a difference in the amount of girls in math and science classes, but it’s another thing altogether to experience an overt form of gender-based bias at school.

Initially, I didn’t think anything much of the fact that AP Physics C was heavily dominated by boys, fully anticipating that we’d be seen as equals, with our accomplishments seen in equal light. Suffice to say, I was heavily mistaken.

For an end of the year celebration, we were challenged by our teacher to build a catapult and then use it to shoot a marble at a toy monkey more than 15 yards away. My group was the only group that was all-girl. When we asked our physics teacher for a screwdriver, one boy acted as if we couldn’t possibly know what a Phillips screwdriver was. This was despite the fact that unlike his group, we didn’t get a company to build the catapult for us, instead laboriously designing and conducting trials with our catapult. When we turned out to be the only group to hit the monkey, several of the boys – watching from 15 yards away – disputed it, saying it didn’t actually hit the monkey. This is despite the fact that our physics teacher, standing a foot away, vouched and said it did hit. Not to mention, we all heard the sound from the marble hitting the monkey.

Instead of accepting that they’d been bested by a group of girls, they demanded that we go again to “really prove it hit,” and obnoxiously crowded around the monkey and started to film the shot just to ensure that we couldn’t “cheat.” Perhaps the reason they felt like they couldn’t possibly trust the teacher’s judgment was that she was a female, and of course, a group of males with overly fragile egos know better than an incredibly knowledgeable physics teacher who used to be a college professor.

Throughout the entire experience, my group mates and I could only feel shock at the overt sexism we experienced. Here, we saw a clear example of the struggles facing women in STEM. Really, it was an incredibly apt metaphor for how women are expected to do twice as well to gain the same respect and credit. We were all fully aware that had this been an all-boy group that had won the challenge, the class would have congratulated the group, never expecting the group to go again and repeat the accomplishment amidst cameras and jeers. We were all fully aware that had we been boys, we never would have been subjected to comments from teachers and peers throughout high school that they “didn’t see us as engineers.” We were all fully aware that had we been boys, there never would never be comments that we only got an opportunity or got into a school because of our gender. These types of things, in the moment, just seemed to be a fact of life. Even worse, we knew that what we had experienced was practically nothing compared to the bias and prejudice other women in STEM have faced in their careers.

While it’s certainly disheartening, it’s not going to stop us, and to all the girls interested in STEM, it shouldn’t stop you either. If girls don’t continue to study STEM and pursue STEM careers, nothing will change, with the misguided belief that STEM subjects aren’t for women only prevailing and propagating. Pursue your passions, not the career stereotypes society pushes onto you.

My group mates and are using this experience to further fuel us, as a source of motivation to be successful in engineering. And that’s truly the reason why I’m sharing this story: because I hope this will inspire in you the determination that even against odds, that you will hold true to yourself, your passions, and your beliefs. My group mates and I; planning on double majoring in Mechanical Engineering and Foreign Affairs, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and Computer Science and Economics; know the opposition we’ll face and we’re determined to change both mindsets and the world.

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