Tips For Women Pursuing STEM
Our university and state has a pretty radical history when it comes to women’s rights. The very first person to graduate from the University of Washington was a woman named Clara Antoinette MCarty Wilt. The year was 1876, she was 18 years old, and received her bachelor’s degree in science. This is noteworthy, because during the 19th century, most universities did not even allow women to attend. Most Ivy leagues did not even go coed until the 1960s!
A trailblazer from the start, this was one of many firsts that Mcarty-Wilt would be known for in her life. She would become the first woman to be elected public office in the territory, for one. She earned that position 3 years before women were allowed to vote in the territory, and another 40 years before women’s right to vote was recognized federally!
Although much has changed since then for both women and academia in general (tuition used to be $30 a quarter, or roughly $700 in today’s prices!), there are still many issues faced by women in STEM today. And while with each day, year, and decade, things have gotten better for all underrepresented groups in STEM, we must work to make a better world for the sake of future generations. As the saying goes, we did not come this far to only get this far. So to keep these conversations going, we’ve compiled a list of tips for women pursuing science and engineering. While we wrote these with women in mind, they can apply to anyone!
“Women don’t give themselves enough credit for what they can do. You see it in the 21 year old senior just coming out of school, you see it in the Ph.D. candidate just coming out of graduate school, and you see it in the professional who’s been working for 10 or 15 or 20 years.”
-Director of minority-student affairs at a prestigious women’s college-
Louis Pasteur once said “Chance favors the prepared mind”. In science, and in life, being prepared will open doors you did not expect. Be prepared so that you can focus on showcasing your brilliance. When you know you are well prepared, you can feel a little more confident in your skills and abilities as a scientist.
Be open minded
One of the great things about STEM is that there are so many diverse and exciting research areas! Be open minded about exploring research questions that interest you. You might find that some research fields were not what you expected them to be, or you might even discover something new. Phuong had never even heard about Materials Science and Engineering until she tried out an introductory class sophomore year of college, and she ended up receiving two degrees in it!
Have people in your corner
This is absolutely necessary, and really applies to any career. STEM can be especially challenging, and there may be times when the gender disparity becomes starkly real. You might feel lonely, discouraged, and out of place. Surround yourself with a strong support system who will lift you up from your lowest of lows and remind you that you are enough for STEM, and that STEM needs women like you. Whether family, friends, it’s labmates, fellow grad students, the lab manager, your PI, a professor, or program advisor, find supportive allies.
Forgive yourself for those missed exam points, the missed sentences in your presentation, and the failed experiments. It’s easy to nitpick about your should haves, could haves, and would haves. But always remember that this is a journey and that it’s okay to try again. You will learn. Be compassionate to yourself, what you’re trying to do is no easy feat!
The journey is long, but you will grow so so much! Keep you head up, keep walking, and forgive yourself <3
Know who you represent
... And that person is yourself, and only yourself. In fields largely dominated by men, you may at times feel as if you represent all women, and carrying that burden can be crushing. The same applies for underrepresented students in any area of study. Don't let this pressure prevent you from asking questions, taking up space, and taking risks. Small-minded people will think what they will regardless, and it is not your job to convince them otherwise. You are here for a reason, and that is not it.
Dress for success
That means wearing whatever makes you comfortable. There can be a pressure to dress a particular way, dress more or less traditionally feminine, or even to not wear the same outfit twice (On a grad student salary? whomst among us?). Throw those rules out and think about what makes you feel your best and most comfortable. If that means a pencil skirt and blazer, go for it! If that means an old t-shirt and jeans, wear it with pride! Whether you're in the lab, at the office, or presenting at a conference, the less time you spend fidgeting with your clothes, self-objectifying (thinking of yourself in terms of how you look rather than what you have to offer as a scientist), and worrying about how your outfit looks, the better! As women, there is an added concern with how we appear to others. We are judged by men and women based on our clothing, how much makeup we wear, our hair (especially women of color with curly hair), and more. So stop judging others, and stop judging yourself!
Between classes, research, and balancing (or attempting to balance anyway) work/life, there are never enough hours in a day. Despite this, remember to take breaks in-between work. Breaks can be meditation, reading a good book, or even reaching out to talk to a friend. Whatever helps you relax and reground yourself. This will increase your overall productivity and prevent burnout (trust us, STEM burnout is real). There is such an unhealthy ‘guilt culture’ in academia that can be perpetuated by others around you. There are many stories where students would brag about how many all-nighters they’ve pulled or how much they’ve cried over a project! This is not healthy! The first step to changing this unhealthy STEM culture is to recognize that it is a problem, and take steps to care for yourself.
I LOVE afternoon tea time!
ALWAYS ASK FOR HELP
This is so so important. As minorities in STEM, imposters syndrome permeates through our academic and professional experiences. Imposters syndrome is a psychological pattern in which one doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent fear of being exposed as a "fraud". Imposters syndrome is silent and it is harmful to one’s mental health. We feel like we have to work extra hard to deserve our place, and it can be so discouraging when we are stuck on a problem. It adds onto our misled feelings of already being inadequate and unprepared. Academia can be competitive and there is not enough focus on student well-being and mental health. Like many other things that are mainly merit-based, it can foster a culture of unhealthy competition. Know what your limitations are, and always ask help when you need it. The largest obstacle to asking for help is yourself! It’ll save so much time in the long run, and we promise you will be surprised that there are other students struggling too.
Your friend group is more important than you’d think
-Find friends with similar backgrounds
Ayumi and Phuong found each other, as well a group of awesome women in their cohort, to support and uplift each other. It can be comforting to know that many others are going through similar struggles!
-Find friends who are totally different from you
Making friends with different backgrounds is incredibly enriching. You can find common ground with just about anyone! Ayumi is a member of the Biomedical Diversity Community, which brings together both grad and undergrad students from different backgrounds to have educational events, round table discussions, and socials. She has made some great friends through this club.
-During orientation, Ayumi and Phuong were told that making friends amongst their cohort, program, and campus would be one of the most important things they accomplished in their first year. Perhaps for underrepresented students more than anyone else, this contributes to a sense of belonging, friendly faces to commiserate with, and the knowledge that you DO belong here.