Guest post by Rachel Bakaitis
When I tell people my major is physics, the most common response is: “Wow!” with a shocked, but impressed expression. I appreciate that they are impressed. Physics is hard! I’ve spent the last four years studying hard! But I wish that the response wouldn’t have to be mixed with such shock. The response is expected though since only 24% of bachelor degrees are STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math). In physics, only 20% of their bachelor’s degrees awarded each year go to women, and, in engineering and computer science, it’s only 18%. TV programs like The Big Bang Theory don’t help much either when they teach people to expect only socially inept women, like their character Amy, to be studying science. This view hurts women. Last year Yale did a study showing that male scientists are more likely to be viewed favorable (by both men and women) than a female scientist with the same qualifications. As a result of this attitude, the woman’s starting salary was most likely to be $4000 lower than her male counterpart’s.
Another common response I get, particularly when telling other women that I’m majoring in physics, is: “Oh my gosh! I could never do that!”
I respond to that with, “You’re wrong. You could probably get a physics degree if you wanted to and if you put the time into it.”
“But I suck at math,” some will respond.
“But if you put however much time you would need into it, you could do it.”
Friends have stopped for a second, thought about the response, and replied, “Yes, you’re right. I probably could do it if I really put the work into it. I guess it’s just that I never wanted to get a degree in physics.”
Unfortunately, the fact that I’ve never had this conversation with a man supports studies showing a gap between men and women in their self-confidence in their own math and science abilities. This gap is the result of many social expectations both women and men face throughout their entire lives. This lack of self-confidence in math and science is something I too have, and currently, struggle with.
In fifth grade I scored low on the math section of the standardized tests, resulting in my middle school placing me in a lower math class. Thanks to my best friend, who was in the accelerated math class and begged me to test up so that we could be in class together (now that’s true friendship!), I moved up to the accelerated class mid semester. This set me up to be on an accelerated track going into high school and to ultimately take AP Calculus my senior year. (It’s interesting to note how the fate of one test could have potentially had a lasting effect on my education.) Although I performed well in my math classes, the fact that I didn’t ace all my tests or couldn’t compute numbers quickly in my head made me insecure in my math capabilities. When I didn’t completely understand a concept, I reminded myself that I wasn’t even supposed to be in the accelerated class, according to my 5th grade testing, so therefore probably just was weak in math.
Like most schools, we were encouraged our junior year of high school to figure out what we wanted to major in for college. I didn’t even consider perusing a STEM career. I didn’t see those subjects as particular strengths for me, although I accepted that I was decent at them. I couldn’t picture myself enjoying STEM as a career. STEM wasn’t part of my personal identity. I identified myself as a girl who loved the beauty of literature and education, a girl with a big imagination, fantastic ideas, and a desire to travel the world, a girl who wanted to make an impact in society and help others make a difference in their lives. I had this ‘perfect self’ in my mind that I wanted my college degree to support. I decided that I would become an English teacher. I think it might have been that I had some really great English teachers who personified characteristics of this ‘perfect self’, and I also really liked the analytical class discussions incorporated in my English classes (but lacking in my math and science classes). Unlike the average statistical woman, I actually had a lot of encouragement to go into a STEM degree. My mom told me several times that she thought it would be better for me to study math education instead of English education because of its higher demand in the job market. My great aunt actually laughed when I told her my plan and said I should study STEM to get paid well. Well, that idealized ‘perfect self’ I imagined did not care about money, demand in the job market, or what my family said, but I do believe it was unknowingly influenced by all the stereotypical images seen in media and the lack of women role-models in STEM .
Research shows that the issue of women not choosing STEM careers is not an issue of aptitude. A study done by the University of Pittsburg showed that among those that scored highly in both the verbal and math sections on the SAT, two thirds were women. It was the women who only scored well on the math, but not the verbal, who were more likely to choose a STEM career, however. The women who scored well in both sections of the SAT had more career options open to them and could do well in a variety of settings. Because cultural stereotypes push women away from math and science, it is not surprising that those that were highly skilled in two areas chose the one that was most socially acceptable for them. This is what happened to me.
I studied English for two years at BYU, enjoyed it, and did well in my classes. I didn’t have any good reason to leave the English program, except, like any good English major, I read a lot. I started reading popular science books on string theory and quantum mechanics. I thought it was amazing, and I realized that if I did not study science, I would only be able to read about that stuff, but not actually do it. That made me feel like my potential was cut short. At the same time, I felt like all around me there was a stifling culture that was telling me, as a woman, to not reach higher in my goals. For me I seemed to feel this a lot stronger at BYU than at home in Illinois. It’s hard to explain, but I did not like it. This feeling inspired me to start reading a lot of feminist articles and studies. I came across many articles talking about the shortage of women in STEM careers. All of this resulted in me changing my major to physics.
Physics has been hard. My GPA has dropped a lot. Like most physics students, I spend a lot of time on campus studying. I’ve had to be very dedicated to pass my classes. But was changing my major from English to physics a bad idea? No. It has made me feel free. It has given me options that English could never. I ended up getting an ROTC scholarship because of it, and now I will have a career as an Air Force pilot. Because of my physics degree, the option of Air Force test pilot, one of the steps to becoming an astronaut, is still open to me. But, even if the Air Force doesn’t work out for me, I don’t have to worry about finding a job to support myself, or a potential family. Physics looks excellent on a resume for a variety of careers. If I want to stay in STEM, there are a ton of options in research. (Think of every piece of technology you enjoy. Someone was behind it inventing it. Think of all the problems we currently have from pollution to cyber security, we need scientist to work to find solutions.) If I want to get more education, I could go into a graduate program (free for me because universities get a lot of funding for STEM) in physics or engineering. Even if I choose not to stay in STEM, my physics degree actually looks great if applying for law school. I have friends graduating in my program getting starting salaries of $75,000, and they are working on fascinating projects that most people just read about. Money isn’t everything, but don’t let anyone tell you that it doesn’t matter. It does give you a lot of freedom.
Why do we need women in STEM?
The US needs people in STEM. Only 15% of the world’s scientists and engineers live in the US, and they account for more than 50% of our sustained economic expansion. Within that small percentage of scientists and engineers, there is a huge lack of diversity. Diversity in any field helps progress. Right now there is a need for women’s ideas and thinking in STEM fields. Only 14% of US physics professors are women. From 1974-2006 (a 32 year span!) only 61 physics PhDs were awarded to Hispanic women, 46 to African American women, and 4 to Native American women. It is obvious that there is a lack of diversity. Also, I believe that the lack of self-confidence many women have in STEM, and lack of expectation from others, is oppressive. When girls grow up subconsciously thinking that STEM is not an option for them, that is a problem. When the media is mostly portraying the smart scientists as men, that is a problem. We want girls to grow up knowing that they are smart, and can be smart, at just about any subject they want to work towards. We want society to see men and women as both equally intellectually brilliant. The assumption that women are not good at math or science comes along with the idea that men are somehow better. We need more women out there in their lab coats or hard hats, at their computers or in their labs showing our society that women are just as capable as men and to provide good role models to the younger generation.
Advice to high school students:
- Take AP Calculus if possible. If you go into a STEM degree, it will help you. If not, calculus is still good to know. You may still decide take Calculus 1 and 2 again in college to review, but the AP class will help you a lot in getting that exposure to calculus.
- Go to a local university that does research and ask a science or engineering professor if you can volunteer in a research group just to learn. Yes, you can do this, but most high schoolers don’t know it’s possible. Many professors would love to mentor a high school student. You don’t need to go through a special program, just ask a professor. Professors who are women are usually especially interested in mentoring other women in science. If there is a special topic you’re interested in, ask a professor in that department if there is a project going on related to it. If you don’t know what you’re interested in, still try this out. It will help you see what STEM can do to help others and will look awesome on a college application too. Even if you decide not to go into STEM, this experience will help you make an informed decision.
- Take a basic computer programming class. If one is not offered at your high school, take one at the community college. Basic skills in computer programming will come in handy in a lot of STEM settings. Even if you chose not to go into STEM, you might find programming fun and interesting.
Advice to college students:
- Math and Science classes are usually going to be a lot harder than social science or humanities classes. That’s ok. Lower grades in math and science are ok too. All university classes are not created equal. It does not mean that you are not able to do it and be good at it.
- If you don’t completely understand every concept in your math or science class don’t think that it means you are not good at it. This is normal for most STEM students, and you are going to continue to build upon that understanding over time if you keep working at it.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions or talk to the professor to understand the material better! Ask, ask, ask!
- Do homework in groups. That is the key to success in college STEM classes.
- Sometimes you won’t enjoy every class you take. In my experience in physics, undergraduate classes are meant to give you a foundation of basic principles with the ends of giving you the skills to apply it to do amazing things. Don’t let the necessary drag of a few classes make you quit. It will be worth it!
For parents, teachers, aunts, uncles, or anyone who is around a girl:
- Talk to young girls about the cool things that people in STEM careers do. Suggest that she too could do it and use her strengths to be good at it.
- Ask her about what she is learning in math and science class, and show interest in what she is learning.
- If you don’t like math or science, or don’t think you’re good at it, don’t talk about that in front of her. She already has a lot of outside influences from others and the media telling her that STEM is not really a girl thing. Your comments will help instill that in her and hurt her ability to make the decision for herself on what she wants to do.
- Expose girls to science things. Take her to science museums. Watch documentaries with her. Do homemade science experiments with her. Play Legos with her. Enroll her in science camps. Etc.