What is it like to be a woman in STEM at Calvin?

What it’s like being a woman in STEM at Calvin: saying the right answer, loudly, repeatedly to a group of guys and not being heard. I often feel as though someone found my magical mute button, clicked it, and threw the remote away when I walk into these unduly male-dominated discussions.

It’s seeing your male professors greet male students with handshakes right in front of you while you are overlooked. Male professors glamourising the smallest actions of male classmates or lab partners when you only occasionally get the same level of affirmation.

It’s being tired of hearing some male classmates incessantly boast about how good they are at math or chemistry, yet being envious of their confidence, real or not.

It’s sexism that makes you avoid someone for months because you are so uncomfortable. You tell yourself you are overacting. He didn’t mean anything by it, right? I’ve told myself this in every situation because they are people I interact with regularly. Where would I report what I experience? What would happen? Should I just confront them personally? I have already been through a Safer Spaces case. I don’t want to go through it all again, so I just tolerate it. Like all women do.

It’s being a seasoned TA and male students with an inflated sense of self harshly questioning you about why you took half a point off their lab report. Professors who are wishy washy when you tell them it’s because of your gender the students treat you this way.

It’s having only one instance out of so many where a male professor actually said, “the way they treated you was wrong.” This was after I told him I left our physics lab to go cry in the bathroom because the way male lab partners had treated me. Shout out to Prof. Gaetan VanGyseghem for not questioning my experience as a woman in STEM.

Being a woman in STEM at Calvin is struggling to relate to the few female professors you do have. Why do I only get a couple mentors when male students have a surplus of options? What does it say about Calvin’s commitment to diversity that only three of twelve chemistry professors are women when 54% of our student population are women? I asked a woman in STEM once how she handles casual sexism so calmly when I was at my breaking point with the male classmates. Her response: you have to learn how to not take it personally. 

But, isn’t it personal? Being a woman is part of my person. How do I fight for respect and equality for women without it being personal? If equality among people is considered a Christian belief, why is that not the standard here at our Christian university?

The identity of a woman in STEM at Calvin is complex. Ask a woman in STEM that you know about any gender discrimination she’s experienced. More likely than not, the person that offended her was a male mentor or classmate that she values. Instances of discrimination, harassment, and microaggressions from strangers are disgusting and triggering, but the overt and subtle instances from those we care about, cut deeper and linger longer in our minds. They break our trust and fragment the respect we thought we finally had. 

If you are a woman in STEM, I urge you to speak up. Your experiences do matter. Speak against anything that makes you feel excluded or dismissed. Voicing your pains and experiences does make a difference. Don’t tolerate it anymore. Don’t choose silence if you can help it. You deserve better than that. All people deserve to live, work, and learn in safe and inclusive environments.

If you are a man—young or old—in STEM reading this, take time today to reflect. How do you treat your female classmates or students? Do you find yourself telling peers how smart you think you are? Have you noticed any classmate relationships with women gone awry maybe from an off-putting comment or gesture you made? Are you actively doing something to make women feel safe, valued, and included?

If any of your answers to the previous questions cause you concern, seek out a woman in science, technology, engineering, or math, and ask her what you can do better. Then, listen for a change.