Sometimes I walk into the classroom and I’m the only girl. This never used to phase me. Now I can feel all the eyes on me as I navigate past the front row and start walking up the steps to take the empty seat in the fourth row. “I shouldn’t have worn a dress today” I think to myself as I take my seat and tuck my head, pretending to be oh-so-absorbed in pulling out my notebook. Maybe then the eyes wouldn’t be tracing my face to my feet.
Flashback a few years: I was interviewing for colleges and my male interviewer asked me if being in a gender equal classroom was important to me. Did I ever feel like I faced challenges as a female in engineering? I tried hard not to laugh on the outside. “No, no no,” I responded with attenuated chuckles. It didn’t matter to me; I had always been treated with respect. And it was true. I was comfortable hanging with boys. To me, they weren’t “boys” or “males”; they were my high school classmates and equals. They knew I was smart and I was among the first to be asked for homework help.
I naively believed it would be the same when I got to university. I chose to attend a large public university with one of the best engineering programs in the country. Some fun facts: the college of engineering was 25% female and my chosen major of mechanical engineering had 10-15% females. I barely noted these statistics when I enrolled but I can recite them on command now.
I took a seminar on women in STEM fields my freshman year out of curiosity and a desire to meet people who would be in my classes. To my surprise, instead of discussing inspiring historical women in the STEM fields, we spent much of the time discussing the gender gap in the STEM fields and the daily battles females in engineering face. It seemed an awful lot like socially acceptable complaining to me. I didn’t identify at first, but then suddenly I did. College brought to the surface my entire identity as a female in a male-dominated profession.
Side note: To help non-STEM majors understand the dynamics of the engineering classroom, I should let you know that study partners are key to success. I am always seeking out hard-working, friendly study partners to help navigate challenging technical concepts and work together on problem sets. Additionally, engineering classes often require a lot of group work in preparation for the real life team projects.
In my math discussion my freshman year, I was one of two girls in a class of 20. To me, no big deal; this was the norm. I made friends with one of the guys….or rather I thought I was making a friend. It turns out when he said “What’s your number? We should study together before the midterm,” he really meant, “What’s your number? I want to fuck you.” I had to stop studying with him halfway through the semester and make a female study buddy. This scenario almost to a tee would happen to me at least once a semester.
This wasn’t a fraction of the pie.
In my all male physics study group, I tried to be social. I laughed a lot, asked people how their weekends were and brought snacks. Apparently either this or my vagina made my opinion on problem solutions less valid. I would raise my voice, but until one of the guys backed me up -which they eventually would, because I was right – my opinion was met with skepticism.
In my engineering design project group, I realized that how seriously my design ideas were taken varied directly with how feminine my outfit was that day. It was almost exponential: wear a floral patterned shirt and a bow clip and I could guarantee my ideas would end up in the rubbish bin.
In my circuits lab, I partnered with a male because that’s who I happened to sit next to on the first day. He gave himself credit for my ideas. He treated me like an assistant. He spent more time asking the (all male) group next to me for help than working with me. The pictures of scantily clad Asian girls on his phone made me uncomfortable.
Most recently, a friend and study partner I had made in one of my classes asked me out. I rejected him. I was unsettled but we had worked really well together for the past few months, so I maintained the relationship upon his insistence that he could handle being study partners. Several months later, he decided that he “couldn’t stand it anymore” and that I wasn’t “allowed” to sit with him or study with him anymore.
He made class unbearable for me. I tried to walk in with my head held high and sit next to the new friends I had made, while he stared right through me like he didn’t even know me. When weeks later he apologized and begged me to sit next to him again, I threw my hands up in the air and said, “This is college, my friend. Not the middle school cafeteria. I’m done with the drama.”
Interactions with my male peers have been nothing but negative. I have been hit on and checked out in a classroom setting, when I am simply there to learn and maybe make a friend. My thoughts and ideas are dismissed because they come in a feminine voice. A question from me is dismissed as so trivial, yet a similar question asked moments later from a male is considered a valid topic for debate. Even among each other, I see male engineering students competing and tearing each other down, instead of building each other up. That’s what we engineers are supposed to be doing, right? We build things, not break them down.
I can honestly say I have never had such negative experiences with my female peers. Collaboration with my female study partners has been civil, pleasant, fun, and all around positive. We make sure we all are on the same level of understanding instead of battling to see who can come up with the right answer before the others. Questions are seen as learning opportunities for all, not an opportunity to display superior intellect.
By nature of the fact that I try to treat people as people and not stereotype based on gender, I have always had both male and female engineering friends who I treat almost exactly the same. As such, I have tried to avoid seeing these discrepancies between genders. I don’t want this to be true. I want to be able to interact with male and female peers. Each of us has unique ideas and experiences and it is limiting to block off an entire gender when there is so much for us to discover and engineer together.
This is why I have tried to ignore the discrepancies for so long. I have tried calling some of the offenders out, only to be told I was being ridiculous. I have tried acting differently, less friendly, more friendly. I have tried dressing differently, less put together, more put together. Often I try to voice the words that express the oppression I feel, but I can’t quite pinpoint it on a specific action, just a feeling, so I sit there in silence. Yet I have done nothing to deserve this. I’m just an engineer who happens to be a girl.
Before I finish, I would like to thank all my male engineering friends who have avoided making any of these transgressions. While you are about 1 out of 4, I am grateful that you have proven to me that it is possible to be a male engineer and treat a female engineer as an equal. Please, inspire your male peers to eradicate their sexism. I can only hope that they will learn respect before they enter the working professional world.
I’m just an engineer. Treat me like an engineer, not a girl.