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.


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.

Femininity and Vulnerability (Mostly Ranting)

Femininity is a dying quality. Women today seem to feel like they need to behave like men to survive, to survive. You see, women are in survival mode. They don’t have fathers or brothers or boyfriends looking out for them or protecting them or guarding them in any way. Women are having to be independent to survive.

I’m not going to say this is all men’s fault. The second wave feminist movement started this mess when they said women don’t need or want men and then convinced a whole slew of women that this was true. As these women got older, they realized it wasn’t true, but it created a generation of men who leave the women in their lives to their own devices. It’s a sort of the chicken and the egg dilemma.

The result, however, is still difficult for women. Women now feel like they have to be strong and independent to survive, because no man will step up to protect them (and when I say man, I don’t just mean a boyfriend or husband, but fathers and brothers, too). Then men wonder why women behave the way they do: they’re unfeminine. Women are serious, closed off, defensive. Some women have started to pride themselves in their ability to be one of the boys, while other women struggle being in survival mode just to make it through the work day. And there’s no off and on switch for this mode of living, especially if you’re unaware you’re doing it.

Working in a male-dominated field in the hard sciences, I see this with the women I work with. They carry themselves like men, talk like men, and the ones they end up treating the worst are other women. I have a manager who is very much the quintessential one of the boys. I’m very girly. I love presenting myself as a woman and not being sloppy. I’m only 4’11” (151cm) and 105ish lbs (46kg) and need help reaching things or lifting things. The response I often get from her for this is beratement. “We need to toughen you up,” “we need to work on those muscles,” and all these comments about how I should be more independent and, essentially, more masculine.

This bothers me. Why are women putting more pressure on other women to be this way? Why do women put this masculine expectation on other women? What is so wrong about a woman needing to ask for help and showing she is vulnerable and not completely independent? It doesn’t bother me to have to ask for help. Why does it bother her?

Growing up, I also received a lot of these types of comments from my dad. “I’m trying to toughen you up, make you stronger, make you more independent.” Why do I have to be independent? Why is relying on others so bad? Isn’t that what makes women women is their relationship with people? Yet it seems today women are more competitive with each other than men are–and worse, women are competitive with men! This is not how women fundamentally function. It’s been ingrained into their minds that this is the only way to “survive”. And most women are in survival mode right now. Is it self-inflicted? Partly. Is it a result of men not being masculine? Partly. At the end of the day, there’s no point in laying blame on anyone. This is a problem that needs to be addressed.

I think it needs to start with women. Stop putting other women down for being okay with their femininity and accepting themselves as women. Stop being competitive with women, and for your own sake, stop being competitive with men (men don’t like this). Learn to be vulnerable and accept help. Women in their heart of hearts want to be protected, but unless women learn to be vulnerable and show they need protection, no one will ever step up and say, “I’ll protect you!” But as long as women are going after other women for trying to return to their feminine core, this won’t happen. What I really can’t understand is why have women become woman’s greatest enemy ? Shouldn’t we be supporting each other?

Once women can learn to accept their own femininity and their own core as women, I think both men and women will be happier as individuals and in relationships. Once women start acting like women again, men can start acting like men again. At least, this is my hope.

Femininity Lost

It’s been a while since I’ve written about femininity, or I have written about it at all ? I don’t even remember. Anyway, I’ve been doing some Googling on it to see what is out there, and I’m amazed at how many more resources and relationship counseling professionals are talking about it now compared to even just three years ago. I’ve thought this for a very long time (probably eight years since I took an interest in the topic of femininity/masculinity in Japanese language), and finally there are a lot of other people putting it out there: people are so confused. When it comes to relationships, nobody knows how to act anymore. Men act masculine, and women have been instilled with the idea that they must act masculine, too, in order to be successful. So when it comes to personal relationships, men and women come together and everybody is masculine. The funny thing is, and I’m not an expert but use history as a guide, most men are not attracted to masculine. The result is women who struggle to figure out why they are unsuccessful in relationships, and men are frustrated because their relationships aren’t going well either. Everybody is so confused!

Times are also changing. Traditionally, men had more formal education than women, and women with more education than average typically ended up old maids. Now, that is being turned on its head. Women are increasingly earning more of the higher degrees awarded than men, but most women still want a man they can look up to, a man who knows more than they do, and a man who has more education than they do. It’s getting tricky for everyone out there. As someone who is considering a PhD, I can’t help but think about these things as well. I’ve always thought I would like to find someone who has the academic ambition to get a PhD, whether or not I ever got my own PhD. But now I wonder is that unattractive to have a PhD? Would it make it harder to find someone to marry if I decided to go in that direction? Would it make it harder to find someone who would be that person to look up to with more knowledge than myself? Because like other women, that’s what I would want.

Talking about how confused women are over their spirit (whether it be a masculine core or a feminine one), it should be mentioned that there are women who are naturally more masculine in their core. There are women who are neither masculine nor really feminine in their core. Most women are naturally feminine in their core, though, and always having to go against their nature by being conditioned to be masculine is hurting these women in their relationships and in their very core beings. These are women who are at odds with themselves. I can speak from personal experience to this. I grew up a tomboy, convinced when I was 15/16 that I would have a sex change, and struggled intensely with disliking my body for being female. It wasn’t until I was 18 that I began to be able to begin embracing my feminine core, and it took years to be able to fully embrace it. But I am so much happier for it now. I know who I am, and I am not just at peace with that part of myself but in agreement with it.

That being said, I receive a lot of hostility from female coworkers who behave very masculine. Some of the women I’ve worked with have been naturally more masculine, and that’s okay. The ones I find that are hostile toward me are the ones who seem to be forced into behaving that way (perhaps through their position at work or maybe because of how they were raised) and resent me. Now that I am in the working world, I’m feeling more push from my work environment to be masculine. It’s quite difficult to navigate, too. Workplaces are not open-minded about being anything but masculine, especially in the science field. This is one of the reasons I want to leave industry (let’s face it, business is a very masculine field, no matter where in the ladder you are) and move back into academia. Additionally, I want to leave chemistry and do linguistics/teaching English as a second language, because I feel the environment would be healthier for me as a feminine individual. Sadly, this should not be the case. Women who want to embrace their feminine core should not feel uncomfortable in their work environments because of expectations, but that is the reality of it. And until more women are able to accept their feminine core, the rest of the world will not accept it either, and the expectation will never change. I get the impression this is especially a problem in the US and is a problem to a lesser extent in Europe, where women were never really ingrained with the idea that to be successful one must behave like a man. I blame this mentality on the second wave feminist movement. The feminist movement started as something very good, but was hijacked and became something that told women to behave in a way that went against their nature. Many of these feminists are also the most miserable individuals you’ll ever come across, so really not many people benefited from the mantra of the second wave movement.

I think it’s time more women started to let themselves be women. For many of us, it will take deep digging to find that feminine core. For many of us, we will be surprised at just how feminine we actually are (I certainly surprised myself in this). Most importantly, those of us who discover our feminine core, we must learn to embrace it and express it. It does little good saying, “I know it’s there” and then just staring at it. We need to relearn how to live our lives and prioritize our values accordingly. It is very important that we learn how to express our femininity and become comfortable with it, but also learn not to apologize for it. Many women may have relatives, friends, or people at work or school who push her to be independent, assertive, and career-oriented, and it will be hard to say, “I’m just not like that, and I don’t really want to be”. Accepting it yourself will be a journey. Getting others to accept it will be a battle, especially in a world that is only open-minded to certain ideologies.

While I do not excel at direct confrontation, I can stand against what is being pushed on me quietly and continue to carry myself as is natural for me, despite what the world says. The world cannot force my behavior, but I also don’t have to be brazen in my going against it and thus making myself a target. It will depend on the individual what approach works best, but I hope any woman reading this will take time to consider it.