To Girls Taking Their First STEM Classes
To Girls Taking Their First STEM Classes,
If you’re a female-identifying teen and you attend high school, chances are good that you take, or will take, a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) class. Physics, biology, and chemistry are the usual suspects. We’re writing to share some collective wisdom with you from our own high-school experience.
Allow us to introduce ourselves: we are two high-school graduates heading off to college, named Caroline and Maya. Between the two of us, we’ve taken thirteen STEM courses throughout high school, led science-focused clubs, and conducted research, all of which has been challenging, interesting, and fulfilling to us. I (Caroline) didn’t consider myself a “science person” until relatively late in high school when, thanks to a few incredible science educators, I found myself one of two girls in an AP Chemistry class, and the only girl in AP Physics the next year. As someone who enjoys being a little contrarian, and on the (many) occasions when I felt singled out because of my gender, I enjoyed the opportunity for intellectual retaliation — not to mention my “team uterus” lab group in AP Chem! I (Maya) had the privilege of conducting molecular biology research through a school club for three years and spent the summer after junior year preparing to help run the club at an intensive research institute.
In these STEM classes, we’ve learned invaluable lessons about thinking logically and problem solving––and we want you to, too. Unfortunately, far fewer female-identified high school students are likely to go to the advanced level in STEM subjects than their male counterparts.
This is certainly not to say that women haven’t made their mark in the sciences. From Rosalind Franklin, Hedy Lamarr, Judith Resnik, and Martine Rothblatt, Jewish women in particular have a long history of accomplishments in the lab or on the workbench. They have created often unheralded revolutions with their brains, determination, and perseverance.
This work comes with a unique set of challenges for women. Here are some statistics for you: 22% of high school girls take advanced math and science classes in comparison to 18% of high school boys, but women make up only 29% of the engineering and science workforce. And, despite women making up more than half of the undergraduate population at universities, less than 20% of computer science and engineering majors are women, and only about 40% of physical science and math majors are women.
This trend begins in elementary school.
We know, because we’ve seen and experienced it firsthand. Despite the many STEM courses we took throughout high school, both of us have faced many incidents of sexism in lab and classroom spaces. The perception that women are not meant to do lab work or calculations is still prevalent. As you enter these spaces and find yourself wondering if that thing your lab partner said was “actually” sexist, we just want to tell you: You are not overreacting. What you are wondering about was probably sexism, intentional or otherwise.
You may be afraid to raise your hand in class with a correct answer, or to dispute a lab partner over proper methodology. Just remember, you have the right to steer your own inquiry, you have every right to be in this class, and you are meant to be doing this just as much as they are.
Mansplaining. It happens to all of us. If you routinely have male classmates condescendingly re-explain concepts to you, assuming that you don’t understand, it is totally okay to address that malarkey, and say, “Actually, I’ve got this.”
If you freeze in the moment but want to say something later, call the person in and explain to them why you’re upset. Genuinely misunderstanding something does not mean you are suddenly unfit to be in the class! It does, however, entitle you to go to the teacher to ask for help, if and when you feel comfortable. Just like in any other subject.
Sometimes you may hear classmates (or, if you’re really unlucky, teachers) say that we’re living in a “postfeminist” era and that it’s enough for girls to make up twenty percent of a class. Next time you hear this, you can say to them: “It’s not just ‘nice’ to have a diverse group of problem-solvers in the lab—it’s essential. When you exclude a group of people from the lab, problems go unnoticed and unsolved.”
Finally, if you are ever told your success is due to your professors’ preference or because you fill a minority seat, we would like to say: You are smart and qualified and never need to apologize for taking up space.
Once you come to the realization that you’ve worked hard for your achievements and you deserved them, no one can take that away from you. If you would like to say something along the lines of “Yeah, I have a vagina, and I’m doing math. What’s the problem?,” know that we, and the entire network of Jewish feminists in STEM, stand behind you.
We would like to acknowledge our privilege as white women in a society where we are born with a package of advantages. We are lucky to have the ability to share our experiences and to have support from friends and family. There are many other women who have less privilege. We hope our words are helpful for any woman who feels frustration, sadness, or loneliness in her pursuit of a STEM career––or simply in a science classroom. At the end of the day, STEM has provided us with challenges, opportunities, and many other rewards that make encountering, and fighting back against, sexism worth it. If you feel discouraged, never forget that you have a whole sisterhood of women rooting for you and believing in your ability to succeed fearlessly.
Wishing you luck, skill, and strength in all your scientific inquiries,
Maya Jodidio and Caroline Kubzansky
How to cite this page
Kubzansky, Caroline. "To Girls Taking Their First STEM Classes." 6 September 2017. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on October 7, 2022) <https://jwa.org/blog/to-girls-taking-their-first-stem-classes>.