Are sexist comments keeping women from pursuing careers in science and technology?
When we posed that question to users on the Whisper app, the responses flooded in. As a follow-up, here are the stories our own readers shared with us (scroll down). We've shortened some a bit and highlighted the most cringe-worthy passages, but otherwise we've left them just as they were--including some graphic language.
If you make it to #11 at the bottom of the page, you'll see one anecdote that gives us a glimmer of hope.
1. Smart, but not smart enough to be a biologist...
In both grammar and high school I was told by other girls that no one will ever like me because "You're too nerdy and like 'gross stuff'." In an all girls high school, other students would tell me that I'm smart, but not smart enough to be a biologist.
2. Too pretty to be a physicist.
People constantly told me "oh it's so great that you're going into physics, we need more women in science" like the only value I brought to the field would be increasing the number of women, regardless of how good my work was. I was at a swing dance, and when I was talking to another dancer we started asking each other about majors. When I told him I was a physics major his immediate response was "you're too pretty to be a physicist." At a STEM focused school with over 80% male students, I felt like I was constantly being sexualized by my peers. I felt like the programs made to get more women into the school ignored the fact that once women get into STEM, they're often mistreated.
If STEM fields had a reputation for being safe for female professionals, they wouldn't have such a problem. I think they need to change from the inside, by eliminating sexist attitudes among professors and employers, rather than going out and asking women to change and accept mistreatment to be a "woman in science." Once the school got us interested with their outreach programs, they seemed to forget about what other needs women might have such as not being sexualized in class, sexual assault reporting services, and respect for their work.
3. Of course she likes reproductive science. It's her "maternal nature."
Try being a female and declaring that you study reproductive physiology and do research on sperm. Try it. I dare you. I am most interested in embryology, but avoid telling that to other students because they instantly explain away my scientific interest as my maternal nature. I NEVER wear pink to the lab or anything that might remind everyone that I am in fact a blonde female. Male colleagues assume that I can’t operate laboratory machinery and usually don’t bother to teach me because “they’ll just do it themselves.”
4. Will never be able to keep up with the math and science courses.
When I was in undergrad, my advisor told me that I should change my major because I was never going to keep up with the math and science courses required for graduation. I graduated with honors. That same professor told me, when I was choosing a graduate school, that since I got accepted to a program, that meant that all of my classmates would get in to that school also. The only other students who applied at the same school were male.
5. Not smart enough for engineering.
In high school my guidance counsellors (both male and female) said that I wasn't smart enough to get into engineering and that even if I did I wouldn't be able to complete the program and get a good job or one that pays well. They encouraged me to go to college for an engineering technician program instead because it was easier and there were more girls there. When the boys in my class, whose marks were far worse than mine, told the teachers that they wanted to be engineers they were congratulated on picking such a good field and told that they would do really well. I just started my first year of engineering at one of Canada's best engineering universities, no thanks to any of the guidance counsellors or careers teachers at my high school. P.s. None of the boys who applied to my university for engineering even got in.
6. Women don't belong in physics.
When I was working on my Biology B.S., I had a misogynistic physics professor. He stated, in class, that women do not belong in the physics field, whether as students or physicists (the lecture was about 50/50). And then, he tried to purposely fail a number of female students by ‘accidently’ misplacing our exams and claiming we never took them. I went over his head, and talked to the head of department, and our exams were magically found… Guess who got fired at the end of that semester?
7. The only women in technical fields are "butch dykes."
I'm a college student in computer science. During my first technical internship, a coworker swiped through my phone and asked if I had any nudes in it, I had only talked to this man twice. My supervisor swept a coil of VGA cables out of a cabinet shelf and on to the floor for me to pick up in front of him. Another coworker told me that the only women he'd seen in technical fields were 'butch dykes.' A coworker asked if I had a boyfriend, and when I said yes he said that's all that college girls care about. I lost count of the number of times I was winked at by men twice my age while walking down the halls. ...
My first day in this major, during orientation, a professor looked to another and chuckled that I must be a 'smart girl' to be in computer science. Another computer science student once sincerely asked me if I needed help plugging my laptop cable in to the outlet. The Women in Computing Club is openly mocked by all but one of my male computer science friends. Speaking of male compsci friends, I cannot keep any very long, since after a while they take my complete disinterest toward them as a sign of attraction and attempt to make a move. Female friends are almost impossible to make, since I work with primarily male engineers and my classrooms are almost all male. Last week during lecture, I looked up in a class of fifty and realized there were only two other women in the room. I was the only girl in my Calculus II class. ... It's the little things.
8. Nurses aren't scientists.
I'm a nurse. At the time of this incident, I had a master of science degree. I worked in a medical science lab, where I had written grants, contributed to papers, and advised others on experimental design. I helped write the job description for "research scientist," so I knew that I qualified, but when I asked my (male physician) boss for the promotion, he said, "No. Nurses aren't scientists. Nurses are supposed to be nice." I pointed out to him that I met the job description, I got the promotion.
9. She should "gain 50 pounds" if she wants to be taken seriously.
I had an unpaid internship working for a small field research company. I worked at my boss's house caring for 50+ turtles, newts, and salamanders. One day he and his wife cornered me to give me "career advice..." That I should "either gain 50 pounds or become a butch dyke lesbian," if I ever wanted to be taken seriously in the environmental field. I stopped showing up soon after and switched to environmental education, a more female-dominated field.
10. It's hilarious that she likes robots and programming.
Ever since I was little I was interested in robotics, computers, and programming. I grew up coloring on old punch cards and playing at typing on DOS and watching my grandfather build computers from scratch, or else watching robot wars on tv and designing bots specifically to better the ones I saw... With my crayons. By age 8, I was beating teenagers at competitive robot programming demos that allowed audience participation. But as I started trying to reach out to groups, it’s a bit weird to have maybe one other girl in the group (who, more often than not, sort of side-eyes you as bad as the guys, if not worse... Which, looking back now, was probably them wondering if they’d lose their place as the ‘token girl’). And to say it was disheartening is an understatement.
And now? The first words out of anyone’s mouth to me are shock and surprise, then jokes about being a girl interested in robots and old computers and programming apps (like I haven’t already heard them all a thousand times)… Followed immediately by talking down to me, despite my knowing literally every term they throw at me. Even and especially obscure ones. Nothing I say or do is ever good enough to get past the condescending tone. I’m lucky I also love and have a passion for art and martial arts. At least here I can kick the ass of or out-audition anyone who tries to cold shoulder or talk down to me.
11. She can accomplish anything and should never doubt herself.
Historically, it has been said that science is "a man's field." (I wonder what would happen if the people saying this would do some simple research and discover women like Madam Curie and Hedy Lamarr.) My mother even said after my college graduation, (upon where I received my Bachelor of Science in Geology with a Minor Degree in Geographic Information Systems and a Specialization in Hydrology) that instead of a diploma, the President of the University should have handed me a plastic figure of male genitalia, "because then at least I would receive the same wages, respect, and a chance for a job as my male colleagues." To brighten this story, however, I would like to point out that the faculty of the Geology department at my Alma Mater, nearly all of whom are male, lifted the spirits and encouraged ALL of their students, regardless of gender or background. Whenever I was feeling unsure about my future or my intellect, these professors would raise my spirits and make me feel as if I could accomplish anything. They constantly reminded me to never doubt myself, because many of science's great discoveries were made by people who were shunned in the eyes of society.
What do YOU think? Are sexist comments keeping women out of science? Share your own experience using #MySTEMStory.