Pushing Women and People of Color Out of Science Before We Go In

09/18/2014 01:30 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2014

We have all heard the disturbing reports: We need a million new STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) graduates, we're in a crisis. We, as a society, seem to be suffering some kind of cognitive dissonance though, because with equal or perhaps greater fervor, we are systematically discouraging women and people of color of the population from pursuing graduate and undergraduate studies and careers in STEM fields.

I am a senior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a materials engineer, an honors student, and a woman. I also have been told hundreds of times that I don't deserve to be where I am. MIT admissions decisions come out on 3/14 (for Pi) every year. By 8 a.m. on 3/15 everyone in my high school knew I had been accepted. Tons of people came up to congratulate that day and afterwards but seemed strangely insistent on reminding me that "it is a lot easier to get in when you are a girl because they get so many fewer female applicants."

The idea that there was some sort of quota for women would be repeated to me over and over in the coming months, and it only got worse when I went to MIT. I overheard snide comments from my peers all the time, ranging from "they are forcing black and Hispanic students who don't want to be there to go to college," to "they are turning away qualified applicants in favor of less qualified female applicants."

Naively, I assumed it would get better as I got older; I thought that my community would begin to respect me and stop attacking my right to be there. Instead, it got worse. Male professors would make offhand comments about metallurgy being a "man's field" and would attempt to publicly humiliate our few woman professors in class. One of my TAs tried to convince me that black Americans are genetically inferior due to slavery era breeding practices. Another TA tried to use me as an online dating service, asking for the phone number of a woman pictured with me on my Facebook and trying to get me to come hang out with him at his house, which constitutes sexual harassment.

The misogyny and racism I experienced and saw at MIT became more and more concerning, between professors making "get back in the kitchen jokes" and hearing about what seemed to be legions of male PhD student sexually harassing woman undergraduates. I watched as many of my women of color friends seemed to switch departments and heard horror stories of their advisors pushing them to do so. At the same time I saw them float from dorm to dorm in and out of MIT housing as they tried to find a place they could live un-harassed. And these things have consequences. Repeatedly switching departments might force one to graduate late. Repeatedly switching living situations makes it hard to get a steady group of friends to study with. Money and opportunities literally down the drain. How on earth were my female and classmates of color expected to go on and get doctorates, masters' degrees, and jobs in industry, when the people passing out graduate school admissions, grades, and recommendation letters and our future colleagues see us as "pieces of ass" and/or genetically inferior?

This year, I am walking MIT's halls for the last time, and writing my thesis. While I will surely be filling my days with optical characterization (I work in optics), my mind will also be filled with concerns for what is to come. I know that my name -- Jennifer -- at the top of my resume will play as much a factor in determining my worth as a doctoral candidate as the various papers on which I am a listed author. And I know that even with close to straight As, I am still unwelcome in my scientific community and unwelcome as an engineer. I will be competing with white men with lower GPAs and less research experience who will likely be chosen over me, as professors on graduate committees. After all, some of those very same graduate school committee members probably remember fondly "the days when men were engineers and women were flight attendants." The problems in STEM are the people in STEM. I shouldn't have to play catch up, when I am already ahead.