The PhD voice

My life as a woman in STEM

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STEM = science, technology, engineering and mathematics 😉

Hi all! The month keeps on progressing and speaking of science, my Thesis Committee meeting is next week, wish me luck! Of course there will be a post about the experience. So, here I am to speak about a topic I’ve been reflecting a lot on: the attempt to bring more women to tech related fields and to make them feel well. Are we doing it right? Since I happen to be a woman in STEM, I wanted to speak a bit about what I feel about this topic from the first person.

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Let’s start with my childhood as Pulgarita. My favorite books as a child (apart from the Geographical Encyclopedia =p) were related with animals and science facts, I even went often to a public library and watched VCRs on static electricity with baloons and so on. I always liked watching airplanes in the sky, no wonder why my love for travel! I also loved playing computer and video games. I liked all the science and maths classes and, even though I liked geography and languages too, I opted for the Science and Technology specialization in High School, unsurprisingly, because I was aiming back then to maybe become a doctor.

I knew deep down Medicine was not my calling, even though I liked the thought of helping people live better lives. During high school I was searching for a degree and thought about Biochemistry and also Psychology for a while. Until, in a birthday party of a high school colleague, her cousin, who studied Aerospatial Engineering, talked to me about the Biomedical Engineering degree, that it was pretty new, and it was basically applying engineering concepts to improve people’s health. So I thought, maybe this is the right deal for me! This is from someone who thought engineering was super boring and would mean ending up in a construction site, something I wouldn’t like at all. After my admission exams, I got into the degree. So why am I a woman in STEM? By pure chance. How did I stay? That’s more about determination.

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Fortunately my degree was very 50/50 in terms of gender representation. I felt well there, made friends of both genders, despite the fact that impostor syndrome touches anybody at any point. No male professors, from my experience, showed sexist claims or disdained female students. I knew this was the right path for me. If I had gone to a more male dominated field, probably the experience would be different. I know a woman that, when she entered her male dominated engineering degree, one professor told her: “This is a degree for men. Go away!”. Super nice, right? This is one of the reasons why movements in defense of women in tech/STEM exist.

Throughout my research career I worked with both male and female supervisors and felt treated equally. My salary as a MSc level research fellow is exactly the same for 5 years now and I know that men also earn the same as me. So, thus far, I never felt sidelined because of gender. However, this doesn’t mean I don’t know such stories, or that I don’t think that other forms of gender bias occur. The only thing I experienced a bit firsthand myself was harassment at a conference but it was quickly solved. However, I saw a girl in front of me that had a man offering her pills to calm down her anxiety before a presentation and then put his hand on her thighs and she (and I) didn’t know what to do. How can these things be deemed acceptable?

In the year of 2016, apart from the start of my PhD, I also started going to multiple meetups. I went to several meetups and challenges, namely a 48h hackathon and also meetups where inspiring women talk to an audience. I also started my blog as you know, and in all these happenings I saw one trend: the problem of underrepresentation of women in tech events and jobs has to be solved and a lot has been tried with varying degrees of success. I think that events and jobs that promote gender equal topics and opportunities are great, but are we doing it right?

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Nowadays there are some events that have special Women in Tech features and even free tickets. While I feel this is positive to bring more women and build a community of women sharing their concerns about tech, I talked about this with another woman in tech and she said that this looks like Ladies Night in any club just in order to bring more girls in. We don’t have these opportunities based on our value, we have them based on being women. Of course this isn’t fair, but this is like other minorities. We identify them as minorities and special opportunities are provided until the imbalances are solved. I hope this is the case one day for every gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation. But I feel the root of the problem for the lack of women participation in these events is much more fundamental, and only when this will be tackled, the field will become more equal. To me, all sums up to one word.

Education

As girls, most of us have certain expectations of what we should play with, what we should like, like boys do. For most, we are told that women are sensitive, caring, and their natural careers would revolve around these traits. These are all great traits and I seek to build them always, but this is not the main focus of every woman obviously. However, when you want to take care of others, and the way that some STEM fields are thought all the time seem to be way removed from this caring nature, rather focusing on great buildings and making video games that don’t appeal to many people, how do you aim to get more underrepresented groups interested? You won’t. I once had a talk with another girl at an event and I told her that I think programming is thought as super boring and should be taught to everyone as something with a purpose. Not just the “make the world a better place” phony slogan deal. Show real examples! Show how people of different backgrounds,are rocking it in the STEM world and how they impacted the lifes of someone. Make the STEM professionals more relatable! I’m not going to say that specific programming classes for girls focused on the caring aspects of programming should be done, also because women are not a one-size-fits-all in terms of taste like many people seem to assume. I’m saying for everyone! Who know how much creativity can come from these untapped talents?

I sometimes doubted about my choice. I have friends in more “caring” roles and sometimes my impostor syndrome kicked in and started thinking how selfish I was compared to them, girls devoting their careers to take care of others…while I take care of my code =P But the way I could overcome this was by thinking that I, through my talents in STEM, I was helping someone. Helping research move faster. Helping the general audience have a greater awareness to scientific and health care issues. So I think that, if we show this caring and exciting side of programming and technology too, the tide will change and no longer women can be coerced out of STEM as it happens sometimes. And for this, ALL professionals in the field of any gender are responsible. And I also vow here to educate myself even better in order to educate everyone I meet.

When I was at Pixels Camp, I was so busy with the hackathon that I didn’t get to watch this talk by InĂȘs Coelho about Women in Tech. I watched it a few days later and found amazing the kind of actions that the Women in Engineering chapter of IEEE made in schools to promote engineering to girls too. If you have one hour of your time, it’s an excellent talk to watch about this topic. And if you wish to debate these topics in groups, find a community near you. For instance I’m in the Geekettes Slack channel, there are plenty of nice discussions there.

What are your views about the rise of Women in Tech/STEM movements? How do you think the participation of less represented groups in tech/STEM can be improved?

CĂĄtia

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4 thoughts on “My life as a woman in STEM

  1. Your 2016 sounds great! PhD, meet ups and so much more. I think it’s great women are rising to work in tech/STEM movements. We have to support and push one another and we can achieve anything!

    1. Completely! Together it’s where we stand! However I’m afraid that there are becoming too many women in tech separate groups and maybe it’s not a good idea to spread out so much, less groups could make a greater impact. Are you also into any women in tech community? Thanks for commenting!

    1. Thank you so much for your comment! I just read your post and it’s so awesome that you work in VR, I think that area will become so big soon! I will comment more about it there. Cheers, Catia

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