5 Experiences As A WomAn In STEM That've Sucked

Written by Gwen Sword


“Really?” [My friend, at my feminist philosophy textbook.]

“Yes.” [Me, in response to my friend for being angry at my feminist philosophy textbook.]



I always knew that going to a tech-school would be intimidating and though my family joked that I would have nice selection of boys to choose from, I was never comfortable with the “ratio.”


Getting involved on my campus was not something I ever saw myself doing. Going to events, weekly meetings, and being in charge of an extracurricular just seemed scary— almost as scary as raising my hand in my engineering courses where females made up only eight percent of the class population.


A few months ago, I went on a brittle limb to an entrepreneurial event at my school. I was super nervous for whatever reason, and I brought a friend. When I got there, I was aware but not shocked to be the only female among thirty-ish people.


“You’re the only female here, huh?”


Amazing. With a creepy smile and about six words, this man made me uncomfortable.


That professor decided that before knowing my name, major, year, voice, or face, he wanted to point out the painfully and unsurprisingly obvious.


Its hilarious when you point out my discomfort. Thank you, sir.

Student Gender Distribution

According to U.S. News & World Report, llinois Institute of Technology has a total undergraduate enrollment of 3,099, with a gender distribution of 69.4 percent male students and 30.6 percent female students. At this school, 62 percent of the students live in college-owned, -operated, or -affiliated housing and 38 percent of students live off campus. Illinois Institute of Technology is part of the NCAA III athletic conference.

Not letting the previous experience ruin my desire to get involved in this testosterone factory, I decided to join an organization I cared about: Engineers for a Sustainable World. Part of one of our projects included venturing to a shop on campus where we had to cut holes in some PVC. It was me and two others— a male and a female. While the male was drilling some holes, the female volunteer and I worked on the PVC together. We were met with condescending attitudes and questions of our ability by the professor on duty.


“What size is that pipe?”

“3 inches.”

“How big is the bit?”

“3 inches.”

“Now, what do you think that’ll look li—”



Let me give you the same dead-inside stare I gave customers who complained about the concession prices at the movie theater I worked at so you know exactly how concerned I am.


Out of ten Greek houses at this school three of them are sororities. Socials involving all three sororities being rare, the only one during my time featured spoken word poetry about feminism and sexuality. The evening was influential for those involved— everyone got to know each other, shirts were being sold, there was food, and a great turn out!


The best part, probably, was the girls’‘on-point’ ability to tune out their male peers’ snickering and their disruption of the spoken word presentation when things like “feminist” and “orgasm” were said. It is amazing how the women of this school could sport, “Human Decency Is Not Foreplay” shirts and giggle all the way home, knowing that they’re the butt of more IIT jokes.


Maybe they just didn’t check Yik-Yak that night. Oh well.


When I went to the head of my department after learning he held a forum to hear what the women of my department had to say, I listened as he told me that girls were paid special attention to in their high school years and that it was very unfair to the boys. I then asked him why there were so few females in our department and he didn’t have an answer. I asked him how many female professors we had and he said, “One,” quietly. Our talk concluded with instruction to email his assistant asking what the exact percentage of females on campus was and to see the emails of all the women he talked to about their experiences.


I never got an email back.


The ratio is acknowledged by everyone. “The odds are good, but the goods are odd” were some of the first words said to me by a female on this campus. “The ratio” is joked about in greek week skits and very much a part of our campus culture. I was told not to join robotics because no one would talk to me. “Slampiece” is the word used for the girl you’re dating— even if you end up marrying her.


Our campus is built on stacks of male privilege. Students observe the treatment of their female peers and shrug it off as “Well, that's what happens.” I’ve met more women who embrace and tolerate this culture than women who are dissatisfied with it. Apparently, when one of the frats decided to go after “Snow White: the Virgin Girl’s G-Spot,” it’s all funny and nothing should be questioned but my radical perspective. No one wants to correct the behavior because no one wants to believe it's happening.  


During my time here, two attempts were made to maybe change this culture.


The first, was the professor who held the forum. He wanted to understand and inquire about the female experience. He got these women together to listen but denied any influence from society and faculty, saying that women have the equal right to attend this school and major in engineering. The other time I was approached by a woman and her friend at work who wanted to start a group called ‘STEMinists.’ I could see the frustration in her eyes when she reluctantly asked me if I would sign her mailing list— I could tell she was exhausted and there weren’t many signatures. I never received an email about their organization.

“Gwen you can’t leave aerospace! There is only one female left in my class...”


“Hey Gwen! Come here, we’re roasting you.”


“We were saying that if this exam was on how far you can deep-throat a banana, then you’d ruin the curve!”


In an engineering education article that studied over two years of data on self-sufficiency in female engineering students, psychological patterns were found. Stereotype threat refers to the debilitating anxiety someone can feel when they are at risk of conforming to the negative stereotype associated with their situation. They found this predicament is present in female engineering majors and prevents them from performing confidently and comfortably in their fields.


The study also found that social support often correlated with female performance in engineering programs as opposed to raw knowledge. Women are not going into math and science fields based on their abilities in those areas, but for the value they place on doing well in those fields and how much social support they receive. The study also found that when social factors are eliminated statistically, gender differences were eliminated. Most importantly, the study concluded that females in STEM rely on social support for their performance. Women in STEM need role models, support from faculty, and an elimination of negative stereotypes surrounding their performance based on gender.


Current initiatives are amazing, but this is a cultural problem.


What if we were all educated about sexism and misogyny from a young age and exposed to a broader history than the one we “know and love?”


If gender studies were a requirement in high school and taught from the beginning, maybe not everyone would believe that women can’t be engineers and men can’t be stay-at-home dads. If our history and science classes required an equal percentage of female, male, and non-white authors then maybe everyone would feel more included, maybe everyone would have a broader perspective, and maybe me and my female comrades would stop feeling uncomfortable.

Tolerance isn't enough. Speak out and be radical. Tell them you’re unhappy.


Contact Gwen by email at gsword@hawk.iit.edu