After the first four years of high school, the Zimbabwean education system divides students into specializations. They write exams and use those results to determine whether they will study Humanities, Sciences or Commercials. I always knew that I would take the Humanities path, but I noticed something sinister when we made it to A level. My class was mostly made up of girls, and the Sciences only had three girls.
It was clear that we were divided according to gender stereotypes. It wasn’t entirely the school’s fault because students still had the freedom to choose. However, it was clear that certain gendered stereotypes were perpetrated by them.
Despite growing up in a time where girls were freely encouraged to learn, there were stereotypes about what we were expected to learn. We were often taught about the myth that men were more left-brained thinkers so therefore, they were more logical. I thought that I was the only one who noticed this difference, but my younger brother recently complained about being one of the few boys in his Journalism class and how he was tired of how people reacted when he told them he was taking non-law Humanities classes.
It’s not enough to encourage girls to sign up for STEM classes and ignore the stereotypes they have to stand up against. We need to understand that girls grow up being discouraged and many of us internalize some of the myths. A recent study showed that women have similar skills in Computer Science, but they are less confident than their male counterparts. If we are going to improve the situation, we need to fight cultural and institutional biases. We should stop perpetuating myths and review the language that we use to discuss women in STEM.
I watched an episode of Good Trouble where Mariana, despite graduating at the top of her class, is not taken seriously because of how she dresses. She is forced to tone down the femininity and dress “like one of the boys” for her to be taken seriously. A friend, who is studying biochemical engineering faces a similar problem. She explained how the men in her class either make fun of her when she wears dresses, or are quick to sexualize her. She also explained how they often hang out as “the boys” and go on to discuss school-related issues without her.
My friend explained that she learned early on that she was an outsider, and she always would be. In fact, women are often treated as outsiders to punish them for violating gender roles. This explains why women are expected to dress more masculinely for them to fit in. It is difficult for women to make real progress in STEM if they are socially isolated. They struggle to find mentors, to get published, and they end up hating their jobs.
We need to stop treating women in STEM as tokens and start seeing them as more than statistics. It’s unfair to push women into discriminatory workplaces. We can’t continue to encourage them to join industries where they are constantly looked down upon and more likely to be sexually harassed. It is important to challenge the system that is committed to pushing women out of STEM. We need to listen to what women in STEM have to say and implement their suggestions. It’s important to focus on fixing the system and not solely push percentages.
I’ll never fully understand the challenges that women in STEM face. I am in a field that is mainly dominated by women. However, I am also a Black woman, so I understand what it feels like to be an outsider. I know what it feels like to not see faces like yours when you look at industry leaders. The best thing we can do for women in STEM is to bring their stories to the forefront. We can also encourage more girls into STEM so that they can challenge the stereotype. It’s important to educate men on their bias (both known and unknown) so that they can treat women in STEM better. We could listen to the women’s complaints instead of brushing them off.
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