The Day My Teacher Said, "Women Don't Belong in Science" #UTArlington #UTA #MavUp
When people outside my professional sphere find out I have degrees in engineering, the most common response I get is, "Oh. So you're smart."
When people find out I earned a degree in language before earning degrees in engineering, the most common question I get is, "Wow, how did you switch to something so different, so technical?"
It's the wrong question.
The question should be - Why weren't you in a STEM track from the beginning?
Growing up in Texas, I had little exposure to professions. The men in my family were serial military. The women in my family were primary education school teachers, stay-at-home-moms, and secretaries.
Though I didn't even have the language for it back then, the only thing I really understood business to be was retail. I had no real clue about the worlds of mining, manufacturing, consulting... I didn't really know what engineering was, either. I figured it was something smart people do, mostly men.
I thought scientists were people who worked in labs. I thought they all needed PhDs to do anything worthwhile. Back then, I didn't know that people could get actual financial support to earn PhDs. And so I just assumed that's definitely something someone like me would not have access to.
All of this meant I didn't know what to do in school. I had simply absorbed and embraced what I'd been told by the well-meaning people in my life: "Get a degree, and then you'll get a job."
My first time around at university, I stayed "undeclared" as long as possible. I didn't really understand the potential implications for various degrees.
I will usually tell people that after studying abroad, I had so many language credits, I thought I should just finish the degree and get out.
And that's partially true.
What also happened, though, was that I wanted to double major in science.
I started down that path.
I registered for Biology I and Chemistry I one semester. I was at the University of Texas at Arlington, and if memory serves me correctly, this was the Fall semester of 2005.
One day, I went to Chemistry lab. We started to prepare for whatever experiment we were running that day.
I raised my hand to ask a question.
The lab instructor turned to listen to my question. And then, he laughed at me.
Then, to the class at large he exclaimed,
"This is why women don't belong in science!"
I don't remember what happened after that point in the class.
I do remember I dropped the course, and I reported the incident.
The University (UTA) did nothing.
I got an apology letter (or maybe it was an email) from some dean near the end, or perhaps after the semester was over, by which point I'd dropped any serious consideration for doing that double major.
The University failed me in every way and did literally nothing to even attempt to support me.
I think about that turning point a lot.
There are two things I'd like you to understand from my experience.
First, this was a case of "straw that broke the camel's back," rather than an isolated incident that changed the course of my life. What that man said was simply the acute verbalization of all the messaging I had subtly received via media and growing up in small town Texas culture, with ideas like (though often not explicitly stated) women should be seen not heard, women aren't good at science, women aren't good at math, women don't belong in places where "real" work is being done, etc., etc., etc.
And second, that incident didn't make me feel stupid. I've only recently come to realize that what I really felt as a result of this Instructor was exclusion. He made me feel like I definitely did not belong. And so I left.
Not every woman or underrepresented person has an experience this directly exclusionary. To be sure, some people have many experiences that are far worse.
As I've stated before, one thing we need is for allies to not be surprised when they hear or read these stories. These things still happen all the time. These encounters (and worse) continue to impact people and their decisions - whether or not to pursue a certain degree, whether or not to stay in an educational program, whether or not to continue in a certain profession. For example, the numbers show us that even pre-pandemic, women who earn degrees in engineering exit the field substantially faster than their male peers. (Also see SWE's research.)
What good does it do to fire up little girls about STEM and then for those girls to become unsupported women in those same STEM fields?
We have work to do.
Telling women or minority persons that "things are better than they used to be," is just a statement for a speaker to feel better about themselves. It deflects hard conversations and the actual work that needs to be done to level the playing field for historically excluded persons.
Are you a University of Texas (UTA) representative that would like to find a way to right this wrong? I'd like to invite you to begin by paying off my student loans. You can reach me at MelTheEngineer@gmail.com to make arrangements. While I'm glad I have earned those engineering degrees, it has come with a very real cost. Going back to school years later was substantially more expensive than it was when I should have been earning those degrees at UTA in 2003. So, not only did I start this career later than my peers, meaning I have lost multiple years when I should have been earning real salary, I also started a career late with an extraordinary amount of student loan debt. Your support, albeit late, would be greatly appreciated.