Why I’m Leaving the STEM Field

This blog entry is partly for my own therapeutic needs, but also partly to inform others of what it’s like to be a woman in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields.

To give you some background, my career trajectory has been very unconventional. When I started university, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I transferred to a different university after my first year, and my first year of university ended up being a waste–nothing counted toward my degree requirements at my new university. When I got to my second university, I bounced around a bit. One thing I loved was my culture and foreign language classes. My love for language ended up putting me in the English department with minors in Japanese Studies and Chinese Studies. This was as close to a linguistics degree I was going to get at my university. I thought with my foreign languages (3.5 years of Japanese and 2.5 years of Chinese, as well as three years of Spanish in high school and being a native German speaker), I wouldn’t have a problem finding working. Ultimately, I wanted to do a master’s in linguistics, but as I graduated in December, I thought I would work until I could apply/start a program. Well, employment never came.

It was the beginning of 2011, and even grocery stores wouldn’t hire me. Eight months after graduation, I decided I couldn’t just sit around and wait for employment to come to me, so I decided to go back to university, except this time I would go into a field with more security: STEM. My major? Chemistry.

I had always loved science, and I would never say I didn’t enjoy the classes I took for my chemistry major. Chemistry (rather than biology) seemed a hard enough science to provide some job security, but not so difficult I wouldn’t be able to get through it (like physics). My decision was very intentional. I started undergraduate research my second semester of my new degree. I did well in chemistry! I brought my GPA up from a 3.35 for my English degree to a 3.48 by the time I received my chemistry degree. So there was no question of my academic capabilities. I felt pretty good about my decision and decided to pursue a master’s by research in England to get more lab experience.

This is where things started to change a little. For my master’s, I took on a research project in a bioanalytical lab. My project was essentially an engineering project: I designed a part for an instrument that we used for analyzing compounds. I actually had to learn to use AutoCAD and design this part, find a place to manufacture it, and then troubleshoot the part. Despite the fact that I did this with some success, and my project created the foundation for a fully funded PhD project, I always felt like my qualifications as a scientist were in doubt. This was typically felt during discussions with my colleagues, who were mostly PhD students and all men. Even though I had more experience in biology than any of them (having worked in biochemistry research for most of my undergraduate research experience), they rarely seemed to receive the information I shared as anything of value. It was like it went in one ear and out the other, almost like my information was less valuable than what the other guys were sharing, even when it was relevant to the conversation. Simply put, it felt like I had nothing valuable to contribute to the conversation as a scientist.

To paint a bit more of a picture, even as a chemistry student, I never really blended in well. I always wore skirts and dresses, liked cute accessories and shoes, and wore lacy items whenever given half the opportunity. At first, I didn’t draw the connection. I figured, I have proven my success and capability as a scientist academically, first as an undergraduate and now as a graduate student who is making a difficult project work (and everyone was in agreement that my graduate project was a very difficult one).

I brushed it off for a while and thought maybe it was because I was American. People in England generally didn’t hold a very high opinion of Americans, and it had often felt like being American in England did not play in my favor in many other circumstances as well. So, I didn’t take it personally.

When I returned to the US and started job hunting with my newly earned master’s degree, things began to look a little different. My first job, which still took me nine months to get, was a contract job as an analytical chemist. My master’s was in analytical chemistry using the same analytical techniques, so it was a fairly natural fit. Without going into the moans of working as a contract chemist in industry (worst job ever), I felt like I was treated very differently, even from the other women who worked with me. I was required to wear pants to work, which was fine, but I still wore nice tops that were cute, slacks, and cute shoes while everyone else came to work in jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers. My manager, the quintessential tomboy-type who was especially buddy-buddy with my male coworkers, seemed to have a special place in her heart for me–and not in a good way. She picked on me, saying things like, “We need to toughen you up” or “We need to work on those muscles” and essentially telling me I need to stop being such a girl. She praised the boys when they had done a good job or finished a project quickly, but no words of praise were ever handed out to me. There were only two other women who worked in our contract worker group, and they seemed to be pretty good friends with my manager but almost in a love-hate way. The dynamic was a bit odd really.

Anyway, once again, I shook it off as being just a bad work experience. I could feel my manager aiming at the core of my femininity and trying to destroy it and turn it into something “bad”. She was certainly not feminine. She was bossy, powertrippy, a know-it-all (even though she had no background in the sciences, she told people how to do their jobs), and a micromanager. Still, I tried to chalk it up to having an unfortunate manager and moved onto another job as soon as an opportunity opened up. Luckily, this was only about four months later!

My next job was at a research lab at a university. It felt like home being at a university again. Furthermore, instead of there only being 3 girls out of 12 workers, the odds seemed to be in my favor: 5 women and 2 men. Maybe it would have been different if I had been working under one of the women, but unfortunately my job was working under one of the men. Again, I experienced the same thing I had as a graduate student: the information I provided and the background I brought to the table was not valuable. Met with only doubt and brushoffs when it came to information exchange or discussion, I was only a pair of lab hands with no brain.

To be honest, I had thought for some time that despite that my facial features aren’t especially feminine and that I’m not really especially pretty either, the way I presented myself could have an impact on how men in the sciences received me and what I brought to the table. However, it never occurred to me to what extent this would be true, until I read this article from the University of Colorado, posted just last year in 2016.

In their second study, Banchefsky and her colleagues strove to see how strong the effect was. They found that a woman’s feminine appearance still affected career judgments even when participants were not asked to evaluate her appearance, and regardless of whether the photos of scientists were presented grouped by gender or randomly mixed.

“This is important because it means that people don’t have to be asked to consider a woman’s appearance for it to still affect their judgments about how likely she is to be scientist,” said Banchefsky. “It also indicates that people use variation in women’s feminine appearance as a cue to her career even when gender differences are made more obvious – that is, when photos of women are interjected with photos of men.”

Exploring the idea of feminine facial features, I came across this online program called pictriev that uses a photo to analyze for feminine or masculine features and tries to estimate age. I used a non-touched up photo for this, so you can see the photo is a little bit dark. My makeup was also light. The photo was taken with a $600 Nikon camera, though, so I have some confidence in it’s quality. Several articles had cited this website, but whether it is accurate or not, I am not entirely sure. It was the best thing I could find to determine whether I had underestimated how feminine my features are, though.

Pictriev

After getting some insight from this mysterious face attribute calculator and reading the previously cited quote, in addition to some other articles, it all began to make sense. Reading further:

The research confirms the all-too-real experiences of many women in STEM fields. The paper opens with the story of Isis Wenger, whose photo was featured in her tech firm’s ad to recruit more engineers. Because she was deemed “too attractive” to be a “real engineer,” some doubted the ad’s veracity.

“We knew there were accounts out there in the literature for decades that women (scientists) can’t wear skirts if they want to be taken seriously. They are seen as ‘too feminine,’” Banchefsky said. “One paper shows that about 75 percent of male and female engineering students believe the perception that scientists cannot be feminine is a problem for female engineers.”

This hit home so hard, it nearly crushed me. It was a very bittersweet moment of realization. That was what I had experienced, and it was a relief to know that it wasn’t me, it wasn’t personal, and it wasn’t in my head, nor did it have anything to do with my capabilities as an individual! What was hard was the fact that this is still how it is in STEM: become one of the men or become disqualified as a legitimate scientist.

“These feminine-looking women have ‘heard’ verbally or nonverbally that they don’t look like scientists, that they don’t belong in these male-dominated, highly prestigious fields,” Park said. “The message that your appearance matters and that it is relevant to your career choice likely leads other women — as undergraduates, as high-school students and even as young girls — to conclude they just don’t fit with science.”

At the end of the day, I chose to keep my identity as a woman instead of my maybe-would-have-been career as a scientist. I love being a woman, and I love being feminine. My desire to express my femininity should not impact my ability to be accepted as a competent scientist, or anything else for that matter. But the truth of the matter is that it still does. So, that’s why I’m leaving STEM. To preserve myself, I feel like I must, because it is not a battle I want to fight.

So what will I do from here? I will go back to my first career path: linguistics. For more than seven years now, I have tutored as a English as a second language teacher and have continued to study languages (Japanese, Chinese, Korean, French, Spanish, Russian, Finnish, Greek). Simply put, I think the field will be more accepting of me and suit me better for it.

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