Women make up a small percentage of STEM majors, due in part to ingrained sexism. One student shares her tips for overcoming these challenges.
Entering college as a science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) major can be scary. You’re thrown into a new environment where the introductory classes are challenging and where you’re surrounded by tons of unfamiliar people.
As a whole, the STEM culture can be unwelcoming to women. According to a report by the American Association of University Women, women make up just 28% of the STEM workforce.
The gender gap is particularly bad in some of the fastest-growing and highest-paying jobs of the future, including many positions in computer science and engineering. This “boy’s club” culture often leaves women feeling like outsiders, leading them to drop out of STEM programs at alarming rates.
As a woman in STEM, I’ve faced impostor syndrome, unwelcoming environments, and blatant sexism — but I’ve learned how to succeed in spite of these barriers. Here are my top five pieces of advice for women majoring in STEM.
Tip 1: Know You Deserve to Be There
My first piece of advice is to understand you belong and that you deserve to be in that STEM class or STEM major just as much as anyone else does. Your peers might talk with incredible confidence, but it’s often puffy-chest hearsay, so don’t let that freak you out.
There can be a lot of pressure going into STEM as a woman. Although I grew up with an engineering background and initially felt confident in becoming a computer scientist, I developed impostor syndrome and attribute most of that feeling to the environment I entered.
In my first computer science class in college, only five out of 50 students were women, including myself. Despite knowing there was a lack of women in my major, I’d expected a ratio of 40 women to 60 men — not 10:90.
Moreover, I had peers, both with and without a computer science background, complaining about our projects and classwork being too easy — and here I was having to spend a lot of time finishing them.
“In my first computer science class in college, only five out of 50 students were women, including myself. … I’d expected a ratio of 40 women to 60 men — not 10:90.”
Another thing that affected my confidence was hearing comments like, “It’s really cool you’re doing computing as a woman.” Hearing this — when I felt my gender identity was not a factor in choosing my major — exacerbated my impostor syndrome even more. Perhaps I wasn’t smart enough or didn’t have the “right” brain for computing. Maybe I didn’t belong in this major.
My professor had told me that women tend to drop out of my school’s computer science program at a rate 150% higher than that for men, despite having equal or higher grades. At the time, I was ranked in the top 20% of my class and was consistently scoring 90-100% on the same projects my peers were averaging just 70-80% on. Despite that impostor feeling, I was doing well.
Women often feel the pressure to excel in order to feel like they belong, but it’s perfectly OK to perform averagely in class. If men can be average and still feel welcomed, you can, too. Most people are average!
It can be scary being in the minority, but you have earned that spot in class and should have the same opportunity to succeed, no matter your background or identity.
Tip 2: Find Allies
My second piece of advice is to get involved and find your people.
By far, the best decision I made at the beginning of college was to sit next to the other four women in my first computing class. Three out of five of us stayed in the computer science track, and our little-but-mighty support group was extremely helpful in those starting days.
I also joined a club called Association for Gender Inclusion in Computing. This group helped me find peers who used she/they pronouns, as well as other students from historically excluded groups who could understand the struggles of trying to survive the boys-club culture of STEM.
Lastly, I made many connections with people who didn’t experience sexism themselves — and who were even part of the problem unknowingly at times — but who were open to learning and changing to make the STEM culture more equitable, open, and welcoming.
Tip 3: Connect With a Faculty Member
Building a relationship with a trustworthy instructor is one of the smartest things you can do as a woman in STEM.
First off, most professors have spent time in the industry and have tons of connections. They can also provide great recommendation letters for work and school and are an excellent source for helping new students get involved in their STEM program.
Furthermore, your STEM professors can create a safe environment that lets you comfortably express concerns about sexism in your program. During my time in college, I had two professors I could tell my problems to. Both took action, whether it was to escalate an issue or make changes to how they were running their classrooms to be more inclusive.
Professors can be intimidating, but the best ones want you to succeed and will take measures to make sure your environment allows for that.
Tip 4: Report Sexism When You See It
If a student is making you feel unsafe or attacked based on your identity, report them. I was so nervous to report people at the beginning of my college career, thinking it was an overreaction or not worth anyone’s time.
But if another student is harassing you due to your identity, they are likely causing problems for others as well. This harassment can affect your grades and well-being, and you owe it to yourself and to others to put an end to it.
I once had a peer tell me I didn’t need to try in school and should stop taking up my professors’ office hours because every company would want me as a diversity hire, while he had to “actually work for that same position.”
This type of statement is invalidating to any student: being told your efforts will have nothing to do with any of your success down the line. Statistically, men are hired at higher rates than women and make up the majority of the STEM workforce.
So not only was what that student said completely sexist, but it was also false information he was helping to spread into the major’s cultural bias against women. Despite him telling me this multiple times a week, I convinced myself it wasn’t big enough to report, once again doing what women often do: making myself feel smaller to fit into men’s space.
“Not only was what that student said completely sexist, but it was also false information he was helping to spread. … I convinced myself it wasn’t big enough to report, once again doing what women often do: making myself feel smaller to fit into men’s space.”
I later learned this student spread a rumor that a friend of mine was sleeping with a professor for good grades. The professor frequently met with my friend during office hours, and she had one of the highest grades in the class.
But instead of simply assuming she was a hardworking student, he labeled her “too stupid” to earn such results. My friend had the same mindset as me at the time, so she didn’t report him. We both still regret that.
Years later, I told a faculty member about these interactions in a discussion about the sexism women have experienced in our computer science program. They, too, regretted that we didn’t report these people.
You might run into men like this student I dealt with, and even if you convince yourself the problem is small and more annoying than hurtful, it’s best to let a professor know. Most faculty members don’t want people like that destroying their STEM program.
And if you have a problem with a professor, you can and should report them as well. Most programs offer anonymous reporting so students can report without unintended consequences. It’s almost always better to report and risk having nothing come of it than to regret letting people get away with such sexist behavior.
Have More Questions Before Heading Back to School?
Dive into our collection of back-to-school resources to find tips, checklists, and insights from real students.
Tip 5: Don’t Burn Yourself Out Trying to Educate Everyone
My last piece of advice is to avoid trying to educate everyone on their oppressive behavior. It’s a learned skill to recognize who will be responsive and willing to make changes — and those who will not.
During my first couple of years in college, I’d call out everyone on passive and blatant sexism, especially in the presence of other women. In retrospect, I should have reported or ignored the people saying these things in most situations.
Unfortunately, hearing sexist statements is a daily occurrence in many STEM programs. Disguised as encouraging, many of these statements are rooted in internalized misogyny. This verbiage contributes to much of the impostor syndrome experienced by women.
All this is to say, put your studies first — it’s not your job to educate everyone on how to not be sexist. Taking the time with allies to understand the issues and encouraging them to call others out on their sexist behavior can help bring about a cultural shift. But trying to educate individual students is not any one person’s job and can burn you out fast.
Ultimately, school comes first. Making use of clubs and other organizations for mass education may be more effective in helping to build a better, more inclusive STEM culture for women.
Meet the Author
Katerina Freedman is a recent graduate of Western Washington University, where she received a BS in computer science and a BA in music. She hopes to work in environmentalism and continue to improve the STEM world for women. In her free time, Katerina enjoys outdoor activities, traveling, and spending time with friends and family.