Moving from high school to University is a huge step. You go from walking around corridors knowing everyone who you pass, to sometimes going whole days not speaking to anyone. You jump from a learning environment where teachers care about your grades and how you’re progressing to a space where professors don’t know you by name or face and no one urges you to do better if you fail.
This leap is hard for anyone and everyone, although I can imagine the severity of it differs depending on how outgoing and self motivated you are. And whilst this initial jump is scary, it is even more daunting for a female (enter me) to move into a male dominated STEM course.
I was really looking forward to starting fresh. I wouldn’t say that I’m particularly extroverted but I can be great at talking and I honestly couldn’t wait to meet my lifelong friends (much of what I had heard about University/College may have come from American movies and TV shows). I had steeled myself for it to be different so after one very sleepless night there I was standing outside the lab for my first class of my university career. As I stepped through the doors and made my way to a table there were two things going through my already frantic mind.
Firstly, there were a lot of males. Like, no matter where you’ve come from it’s difficult to appreciate just how many males there will be. There couldn’t have been more than 10 girls in our over-100-person lab. That doesn’t sound horrible on paper, but walking into a room and trying to find a seat on a table with another female was daunting and difficult. Secondly, everyone looked just as frightened as I was, so this would have been a great time to make friends and ease the tension on the table I choose to sit down on (8 boys, 1 me). Turns out a simple “hello” does not ease tension when nobody wants to talk. I have learnt from my mistake, there are better ways to introduce myself, having a follow up to “hello” is advisable.
My first lab passed in a whirlwind of awkward ice breakers and some very intelligent people who had already done pre reading. And, almost unsurprisingly, the next twelve weeks of semester passed in much the same way. I met a group of 3 guys who were my team for my engineering subject. I met a few people during lectures who I sat with occasionally. I did a lot of late night reading and last minute assignments. I got help from my tutors and I felt like the odd one out in almost all of my classes. I wasn’t a male, that made me feel different. It me feel slightly off-centre, like I was always one step behind the rest of the cohort before we’d even started.
Don’t get me wrong, studying in a male dominated course isn’t all bad. Females get better access to scholarships, and a lot of companies have to fill up a “woman quota” so if you’re good at what you do and you enjoy it then there’s lots of opportunities for development.
However, things get tough when boys assume you know less than they do just because you’re a female. It gets difficult to feel like you’re on equal par with your peers when boys around you assume you need more help because you’re a female.
I’ll take a classic example from my first semester. We were building a trebuchet (read: really cool catapult) in teams and in our first practical session we were assembling it. This involved a lot of screws, nuts, bolts, a very difficult to read manual, and about a billion other tiny pieces. I was in charge of assembling the base, and it was going perfectly. That was until I spent one moment too long fiddling with screwing something in, and one of the boys in my team grabbed the base out of my hands and said “here I’ll do that for you”, in the kind of voice that boys use when they think you’re not strong enough. Not! Strong! Enough! To! Screw! In! A! Simple! Screw!
I was on friendly enough terms with this boy, but now every time we have a conversation I cannot help but thinking that it is friendly enough boys like him that help to encourage small acts of casual sexism in Universities.
It’s the boys who interrupt you when you’re talking and it’s the people who think you’re somehow slightly less capable than your peers because of your gender. It’s a load of rubbish and something that I’ll have to face for the remainder of my course, and most likely career, whether I like it or not.
So, coming from someone who is still studying (and will be for a very long time), here are some foolproof tips for surviving your STEM course as the badass minority you are:
- Don’t let anyone dull your passion.
This is quite possibly the least helpful tip to ever exist, but it’s undoubtedly true. It will be hard at times to keep up with it all and sometime you will feel like quitting and dropping out and escaping on a plane to anywhere else, but don’t. The world needs more females in the STEM field and YOU are going to make a great addition if you persevere. On days when it feels too hard, remember what made you want to study this in the first place. For me it was space. Find your passion and don’t let it disappear.
- Don’t let people interrupt you.
Let your voice be heard. Make an effort to express your ideas and be an active part of conversations. Be assertive in discussions, no matter how easy it is to sit passively. Not only will this help you learn, it will boost your confidence and remind yourself and people around you that women have equally as good opinions and ideas.
- Remember your gender has nothing to do with your capacity to excel in your course and field of study.
Don’t ever let anyone undermine your success because they think that you’re a minority. And, most importantly, don’t judge yourself too harshly because you’re a minority. That weird guy on your table isn’t smarter than you because he’s a boy, he’s just simply smarter than you. There are always going to be people more intelligent than you, and there are always going to be people who show off and exceed expectations, that’s just life, but as soon as you realise these people will come regardless of their gender then you will be better off. You’re capable of getting that high distinction, not because you’re a girl or because you’re not a girl, but because you’re determined and driven and intelligent all in your own way, and, your ability to excel depends purely on how passionate you are.
- Make friends.
I’m not saying this is easy, and I’m certainly not saying that you have to make 100 friends within your first week but I can’t stress the importance of having a group of people, or an individual you can rely on. I initially found it really difficult to make friends, but I do have a female friend from my high school studying a similar course and I don’t think that I could have made it through my first semester sane if I didn’t have her. Join lots of clubs and go the girls’ lunches and find nice people who support you and make you feel like the amazing person you are.
Well, that’s my crash course in surviving University as a minority. I know that this is purely my experience, but I hope that from my many mistakes that I’ve made someone out there can benefit. Studying a STEM course really is fun and interesting and knowing that you’re on the forefront of probably every single discovery that is to be made in the future is just astounding.
So go out there and rock it, we need more people like you.
Suzanna is a University student with lots of ideas and very little time. She is very passionate about learning languages and space. She can be found on her tumblr and in the nearest library.
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