Women in STEM! Women in STEM! Women in STEM!
It seems as though every conversation I have had with a woman I just met in my major of CS never fails to include the line “women in STEM! That’s us! :p” The term “women in STEM” is actually multi-faceted; the term generally refers to the organization called “Women in STEM” that is concerned with empowering and supporting, well, WOMEN IN STEM! Sorry for the repetition, but it is catchy, isn’t it? To be completely honest, I wasn’t even aware that the phrase referred to an actual organization, I always just thought it was the name for the literal group of women that work or study in STEM subjects. Now, you’re probably thinking, why do the women in STEM always say this phrase to each other? Frankly, it serves as a bit of a joke because of the stereotypical perception of women in CS- surrounded by men all the time with few female counterparts present in professional settings. Is this just a stereotype, or does it hold some merit?
One example out of many: LMC 3403
I wanted to reflect on this subject with regards to my experience in one of my classes this semester, that being LMC 3403: Technical Communication. Although this class is from the school of LMC, it is required for some CS students depending on their threads. Because of that, all of the computer science students in the course were put into one section. My class was super small compared to the norm for CS; there were only about 25 students compared to the usual 350 in a CS class. Even with this dramatic decrease in size, the same pattern still emerged, but somehow even more prominent. It has never been odd that most of the giant CS classes I have been in are probably 75% men, but it was heightened in this class for a couple of reasons. The actual number of women in my class was five out of twenty-five, so 20% women. This is already smaller than the usual, but further, a lot of people would skip lecture so it was basically three women with about ten or more men in the class at any given time. I didn’t notice that glaring difference in demographic until about halfway through the semester when I realized that every group I had been put in during the class had been all guys. The thing about LMC 3403 is that almost every single lecture, the professor would break the class up into four or five small groups so it was much easier to see the breakdown of people. For some reason I never did end up with another woman in my group, which saddened me a little bit.
So, what was it like?
When I was a freshman, a lot of the guys in my classes were a little immature in a sense. They would ignore the women in the class and only speak to their guy friends. As time went on though, I started noticing this less with the guys in my upper-level classes. By the time I was a senior, I was used to working with men as my major was stock full of them. I found that working with men could be really difficult at times as the only women- sometimes, I couldn’t get a single word in over their talking, or they would do all the work before I could contribute anything. I know that every group, regardless of gender, has these problems, but I couldn’t help but feel like this behavior was stemming from the gender divide. Let’s just say they weren’t dying to hear my opinions on any part of the work.
A different experience
After working in these groups full of men talking over me enough times, I had gotten used to this behavior and was prepared for it. To my surprise, LMC 3403 was completely different. When I would be put into small groups with the men in this class, it was the complete opposite of what I had encountered before. The guys would hardly talk at all, only speaking to discuss the requirements of the assignments. This time, no one was fighting for attention or talking room- it was wide open. I felt like I could actually talk freely and share my opinions without being judged. This class was one of the few where I contributed all my thoughts without fear of being wrong or being ignored by the other group members. Not only was I able to speak, but my group members would actively listen! I know, the bar is on the ground, but this was really shocking to me, a woman in STEM who had learned how to tiptoe around the men in STEM. LMC 3403 was one of my favorite courses because of this, and it helped me produce some of my best writing and group work of college.
The stereotype of women being heavily outnumbered in the computer science field is true, but I know that the percentage of WOMEN IN STEM! is going up every single day, thank goodness! Thanks to the contributions and hard work from organizations like Women in STEM, little girls everywhere are learning about computer science and picturing themselves as future coders. This article is just my experience, and I hope to see more women in CS at Georgia Tech every year.