The Power of My Voice: Combatting Insensitivity in My High School

Chemistry beakers. Photo via Wikipedia.

A few months ago (before starting social distancing and virtual learning), one of my female friends and I were working on a lab in AP Chemistry class. We accidentally added too much acid to the solution we were working with, meaning we had to go back and repeat a step of our experiment. As soon as we realized our mistake, a male classmate working at the other end of our table muttered, “and this is why we can’t have women in STEM.”

I recognized that his statement was a joke, intended to garner half-hearted laughs from those surrounding him. And, at first, I went along with it too. I cracked a smile and shook my head, making eye contact with my classmate to convey that I didn’t really think his joke was funny. After all, I knew my classmate well enough to feel confident that he didn’t actually believe that women don’t belong in STEM.

Still, I couldn’t shake the dismay that washed over me when I first heard his comment. So I decided to make sure my classmate knew that what he said was unacceptable.

“That’s not okay,” I said. “You can’t say that, or anything like that, again.”

“I know,” he responded defensively. “It was a joke.”

“It wasn’t funny.”

“My bad,” he apologized with a smirk.

I ended our conversation there and finished my chemistry experiment. But I kept wrestling with what had happened over and over again in my head. Should I have spoken up as soon as he made the sexist comment? Should I have been more assertive in my response? Or should I have let it slide? Was I overreacting? None of the other girls in my class seemed to be bothered in the least, so was I just making a big deal out of a harmless joke?

I reminded myself that it was important to speak up, and that, had I remained silent, my classmate’s comment could have snowballed into something larger. But I also felt a pang of resentment towards the whole situation. No one in the class had been surprised that I’d spoken up.

Similar exchanges seemed to happen frequently: a classmate of mine would make an offensive or insensitive remark, I would tell them it wasn’t okay, and everything would return to normal. I felt like my response was so expected, it almost became powerless.

In retrospect, I think that I initially hesitated to counter my classmate’s offensive comment because I didn’t want to be perceived as overdramatic. I had to weigh the pros and cons of responding. While I stayed true to my values by ultimately responding, I also risked my voice being taken less seriously in the future.

I often find myself going through this thought process. Whenever a friend of mine makes an offensive comment, I feel my other friends looking at me, awaiting my impassioned response. Most of the time my response comes, but sometimes it doesn’t; occasionally the cons of speaking up seem to outweigh the pros. In this mental calculation, one of my biggest fears is that my classmates could feel as if they’re walking on eggshells around me.

At my school, change happens slowly; excessive bureaucracy lends itself to a culture of complacency. Speaking out makes me stick out. While this isn’t inherently a bad thing, it can feel very confining. I’m expected to always have a response or a strong opinion. But I don’t want to be known for always having an opinion; I’d rather be known for the content of my opinions.

I constantly grapple with whether or not to use my voice in a given situation. However, I do feel like I now better recognize the power of speaking up, even when it’s on a small scale. As I learn more about the world around me, I appreciate my instincts more and more. When I feel that a conversation is missing a voice, I need to do my best to provide that voice or make room for that voice.

Even if inserting myself may feel insignificant in the moment, I never know what the impact of my actions might be. Conversations need not be finite; they can always be continued and expanded. So even if I may not initially feel the most confident in my stance, there is always time and space for it to develop and strengthen. Ultimately, I need to stay true to myself and my values, speaking up for what I believe in and trusting that my voice will guide me.

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

Topics: Schools, Science
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“That’s not okay,” I said. “You can’t say that, or anything like that, again.”
While I agree that the comment that provoked this response was rude, the response isn’t appropriate either. It’s important that we be wary of censorship because the thoughts/feelings of other people, even if you disagree with them, are no less valid than your own thoughts and feelings. People won’t stop thinking or feeling a certain way if you tell them their thoughts are “not OK”. Rather, they will likely continue to feel that way and just not tell *YOU* what they’re thinking. It shuts down open lines of communication that could actually *change* the feelings of other people if you don’t let people feel comfortable to say what’s on their mind because then there’s no discussion about why their line of thinking may be flawed. In the situation described, I would probably try a response (in a neutral tone of voice without sarcasm) like “what makes you think we shouldn’t have women in STEM? I think Marie Curie or <insert name(s) of female Nobel laureates in STEM> would disagree with you.” ;-)
Wishing you good luck and good health.

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How to cite this page

Klibaner-Schiff, Ellie. "The Power of My Voice: Combatting Insensitivity in My High School." 11 May 2020. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 16, 2024) <>.