Two summers ago, Weitao Zhu ’18, Sumun Iyer ’18 and Eliza Matt ’18 stayed on campus for SMALL, a nationally acclaimed undergraduate intensive research program in mathematics. One day, during a female speaker’s presentation about her work, the three noticed that the speaker was continually interrupted, far more so than her male counterparts. Consciously or unconsciously, her audience, particularly male students, had made assumptions about her gender identity and its relation to her mathematical proficiency, going so far as to disrupt a moment that displayed how knowledgeable she actually was.
“That motivated a lot of people to come together and have a discussion about women in math as a panel, and it turned out a lot of male students, even though we work side-by-side with them every day, were not familiar with those sorts of experiences,” Zhu said. “We were thinking of having a similar discussion where more students could benefit from hearing these perspectives.”
Two years later, Zhu and other students’ desires to discuss such experiences came to life this past Wednesday, when the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) partnered with the College’s Rape and Sexual Assault Network (RASAN) to host a panel centered around the experiences of gender minorities in science, math, engineering and technology (STEM).
The panel began with a conversation about gendered expectations within STEM, with students describing the “culture of masculinity.” Students in the room who were not male-identifying shared personal experiences during which they had been treated in condescending manners for asking questions. Furthermore, some shared experiences receiving explanations that they did not even ask for about content they already understood. These instances, colloquially termed as “mansplaining,” were shared across STEM departments, and they became particularly salient the farther the student progressed within their field of study.
Additionally, they found that the higher the STEM course’s level, the greater the numerical disparity in student gender ratios. The panel discussed assumptions about student demographics in STEM that reinforce cis-normativity and gender binarism. One student brought up the fact that it is much more common for humanities classes to ensure proper usage of an individual’s gender pronouns, while in STEM classes, pronouns are rarely asked for or considered.
Sam Alterman ’18 discussed their gender identity as a student in physics classes. “Sometimes I’d get the sense that people thought I was on the wrong side of Route 2,” they said.
Assumptions about students’ genders in STEM classes have led to feelings of exclusion and discomfort, prompting efforts to make STEM more inclusive and accessible.
Such efforts have taken on a variety of approaches. Some students found communities through building affinity groups centered around marginalized identities in STEM. Examples of such groups include AWM and Women and Gender Minorities in Physics and Astronomy (WaGMiPhaAst). These groups are geared toward creating spaces for open dialogue and solidarity, focusing on how these unique experiences have shaped students’ times at the College.
Other students have spearheaded efforts to directly engage departmental faculty with issues surrounding being a gender minority in STEM. Some panelists described their experiences encouraging professors to be allies to such underrepresented students. In tackling these conversations with faculty, students found a mixed bag of responses, ranging from reservations to interest in supporting students’ efforts.
Physics students found a particularly high degree of faculty attention. “It was heartening to hear that [WaGMiPhaAst] has had such decent success in changing the behavior of physics professors,” William Chen ’19, a junior economics major attending the panel, said. “My experience is that usually getting issues like this to change, especially in STEM and other male-dominated professions and majors, is really difficult.”
Students discussed how these problems are exacerbated by the “myth of effortless perfection.” The consensus was that gender minorities within STEM have more to prove. Panelists provided an example: If a student who is not male-identifying receives a poorer letter grade, they are far more likely to think that they are not up to par for the major or even the profession, while this might not be the case for a student who is male-identifying in the same situation.
Moving forward, the panelists acknowledged that a difficulty of hosting such events is that the people who stand to benefit the most from hearing such stories are usually not in attendance. Despite this, feedback on the panel was positive, and the student coordinators remain firm in their belief that increased inclusion and support is possible.
“A lot of people were enthusiastic about participating, [and] I also really appreciated hearing different perspectives that I wasn’t familiar with,” Zhu said. Ultimately, she believes in the generative power of dialogue, whether that starts in a panel, an AWM meeting, class or elsewhere. “[It is] an agent for change,” she said.