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Encourage and empower women in STEM field

By Santiago Montoya

Section: Opinions

October 7, 2016

“It’s absolutely ridiculous,” said Angela Mendez ’18, reacting to the statement that Tim Hunt, a biochemist and molecular physiologist, and Nobel Prize-winner in Medicine in 2001, said a year ago, in 2015; “I remember when Tim Hunt said [that] three things happen when women are in labs: men fall in love with women, women fall in love with them and women cry when they are criticized.”

For Mendez, “It’s intimidating to know that there are people who believe that because we are women, we bring ‘drama’ to the field.” In fact, Mendez said that she hopes to see more women in the STEM field. However, the fact that women are underrepresented in several or, perhaps, all of the STEM fields, does not completely intimate her. “I am determined to make my dreams come true. I will graduate Brandeis with a biology degree,” she said. Nonetheless, Mendez and a few other female students in STEM claim that gender representation is an issue, not only at Brandeis, but globally.

Carly KleinStern ’19, is another STEM student, studying physics. This fall, she is taking Waves and Oscillations, a class for sophomores who are physics majors. KleinStern claims that there are only five female students out of 21 total, including her. In her electronics lab class, are three female students out of 16.

“I am not intimidated by this, but I am when I think about my future. Things I’m scared of: being aggressive and getting interviews and being super proactive about networking,” KleinStern said about gender representation in STEM classrooms.

But she says that there is not different treatment from her male peers. “Some of them are stuck up, but that’s a ‘person[ality]’ thing, not a boy-studying-physics-thing.” She reached the conclusion that “women and men can be equally great physicists.”

Something that KleinStern did address was the fact that students, regardless of their gender, are thrown into a pool without knowing how to swim: “Speaking from experience, I wasn’t particularly prepared for first-year physics and math classes, and I went to a fine high school. I can’t imagine what it’s like to come from impoverished schools.” She also said that several students are forced to “play catch up, and that’s a bad place to be when you haven’t even started college yet.”

As a matter of fact, the journey can feel frightening and lonely, also known as, the “isolation effect,” said Joelle Robinson ’18, who is studying computer science. Robinson said that the “isolation effect is then amplified for women and students of color. This has held true for me for the four years that I have been coding. I’ve feel this cloud of loneliness drifting over me every time I perform poorly in any of my STEM courses, or [the fact that] I am the only black woman in a computer science course, or I am the only woman in my internship’s software development team.”

Another computer science student, Sarah Khimjee ’19, said that the number of female students compared to male students in her computer science classes are significantly different. There is an odd dynamic in her classes, although perhaps not alarming. Khimjee has noticed that the male students are more nonchalant in the classroom, whereas women “will ask more questions and be more respectful toward the professor.”

One of the major issues is encouraging young women that they have the same opportunities to be successful in a STEM field. Khimjee, a Posse scholar, said that “one person from my posse, even though he is a male, is in computer science, and he is very helpful.”

Robinson also expressed her gratitude toward the vast resources that are available to women and minorities, especially for students in the STEM field. “Luckily, through programs like Girls Who Code and National Society for Black Engineers, I am able to have a more positive outlook on being in STEM. I have grown with my community of colored and women engineers. It’s with this support group that we are able to become the change that we hope to see in the world.”

According to Robinson, Girls Who Code is a “non-profit organization that provides high school girls with a summer immersion program to introduce them to the technology industry and teach them the fundamentals of computer science.” And while outside resources like these exist, there are not many of those specific resources here at Brandeis designed to empower women in STEM, which would have been useful for KleinStern’s first tough year.

The people interviewed for this article, all being women from different ethnic backgrounds, have agreed that at Brandeis, there is certainly the space and a welcoming environment to be successful in the STEM field. Nonetheless, one of the major issues that they all voiced having trouble with is the lack of representation. To put it succinctly, the way Mendez did, the hope is to “see more women in the field”—not only working in labs or designing their own inventions, but also teaching at higher learning institutions.

Khimjee shared the opinion. “It’s really important for young women and girls to know that there are older women that are killing it in the fields they want to be in. It inspired me to see people that are doing things that I want to do in the fields that I want to be pursuing. That’s important for every field, but especially in a field like computer science, I would like to be someone that young girls can look up to.”

The primary way to empower young women from an early age is through education. Khimjee founded the Brandeis chapter of the UN campaign Girl Up at Brandeis, which increases awareness and raises funds to empower young girls in five different third-world countries with the power of education.

It may be a slow process, but it is important to increase representation in both the student body and faculty—especially when the Brandeis student gender distribution favors women.

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