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Last fall, there were was an effort by group of Tech faculty and students to make the “Ramblin’ Wreck” fight song more equitable for females by changing the line “cheer for the Brave and Bold” to “join the Brave and Bold.” While 79 percent of respondents to the Student Government Association’s survey elected not the change the traditional lyrics, the incident opened a conversation about what it is like to be a woman on Tech’s campus.

In Fall of 2015, there were 5,360 female undergraduate students and 2,304 female graduate students enrolled at Tech. This was up about 400 female undergraduates and 300 female graduate from Fall 2014. With such a large increase in female students, the landscape of student dynamics is slowly changing.

With such a range of individual female students, it is hard to quantify the overall experience of women at Tech, even within colleges. Students will point out differences between majors, often making the assumption that female students are treated differently in less gender-balanced, more engineering heavy classes.

In STEM fields, including many STEM universities, there remains an indisputible gender bias. In a study conducted by Sarah Eddy and Daniel Grunspan at the University of Washington spanning three years and 1,700 students in an introductory biology class, they found that male students often underestimated their female peers and overestimated their male peers. This bias worsened as the semester continued even though grade-point average varied no more than 0.2 grade-point average with only 40 percent of participating voices from women — in spite of the fact that the class was 60 percent female.

While macroaggressions may be more rare on Tech’s campus, female students did note incidents of more subtle microaggressions or societal artifacts, often stemming from older, more traditional male professors.

“I’ve been in general physics course where the physics professor would talk down to the preppy girls — the girly girls. They are like every other student. I don’t know if he was just having a bad day, he was not treating me like that or other student like that,” said Michaela Bartram, fourth-year BCHM.

Bartram also noted, “Something I always remember is that my first year, I was a BME student. I took BME 1000. My mentor for that class, who was an international student who may have grown up in a different background, said yeah, if you get into the really hard engineering classes just makes sure you find a guy to help you with your math and science problems because they’re usually a lot better at that. I was like excuse me? I’m not here so that I can find men to help me with me my homework. I’m here to learn and do it by myself.”

“People do say I don’t look like a COMPE or ECE because I am a happier looking and bubbly female. They always get surprised when they see me working on circuits projects and looking up wires in the library,” said Sunny Hong, fourth-year CMPE.

“I took a circuits class, and you can definitely tell that I was one of two girls in the whole class. The professor will definitely make jokes that are pertaining to guy because [most of the class was guys]. He would crack jokes about [bad hair days] and other stupid jokes, which I just accepted as a stupid joke and not really funny,” said Palavi Vaidya, fourth-
year BME.

“It’s not that they’re sometimes very direct about it. It’s not something that guy will notice in the classroom. It’s like oh, I’m not getting called on as often or my answers are getting picked on harder because I am a woman … and all the women in the class notice it,” said Katherine Siegel fourth-year MSE.

“Guys are mostly very upfront about what they need, and I feel like given that most of the professors are men, it is easier for them to understand that. On the other hand, if I do not go office hours, it doesn’t mean that I am not learning or don’t need help, you can definitely see that in classes. Teachers are like well why didn’t you come to office hours, and talking to my other friends, they would have different experiences than me because they didn’t understand how my shyness came into play. There is a lot of stuff I have done on campus to combat that.”

“There are different ways people learn and interact and communicate, and I think Tech was so stuck for so long on one type of person, but now the school is realizing a bit too late that the types of people coming along are different,” said Kali Nicholas, fourth-year ME.

Melanie DeMaeyer, program coordinator of the Women’s Resource Center, approached why women may face microaggressions about their choice of major as well.

“I think what we see often is a devaluing … students talk about certain degrees which are made up primarily of women, I hear … [is perceived as] lesser than. They are devalued by their peers. The kinds of things overtly sexist, and assumptions about a women being in Ivan Allen, and that Ivan Allen is not as valuable as an engineering degree,” DeMaeyer said.

“Some of that may be because we’re an engineering school, but some of that may be because associations with who does humanity work and what is the value of humanities work. … You don’t have that for some of the more traditional engineering disciplines. Sometimes, there’s a correlation. There may not be a causation, but a definite correlation between the gender makeup of those disciplines.”

Female students on campus also noted that most of the sexism and microaggressions that they experience socially happens in their first few months at Tech.

“That happens a lot with freshmen guys. They will question why you’re here. They’re question if you’re really that smart. They’ll even take a test with you and have the same test, and they’ll say you don’t deserve it because you got a high grade. They didn’t even look at my name.  There are many things that are meant in jest and many things meant for real, and not many people draw the line between those,” said Siegel, a Peer Leader in Hopkins.

“I think it happens a lot as a freshmen and as you get older or whether you just stop caring or more confident. Guys shut-up about it when you get older because they get to know people.”  Siegel also noted that when she was first-year and got a great grade on a test and a friend of hers joked that she only got that grade because she must have slept with the TA.

“I do not know who started the joke, but I always joke that the only reason I got in was because I was out of state and a girl and they were expecting me to kind of burn out.  There was never really a lot of substance to it, but because it was such an easy joke to make because there is a lot of fact from it,” Nicholas said.

These year is the year where there are more females in organizational leadership positions on campus. For some groups, it is the first female leader in many years or ever. SGA, RHA, SCPC, ODK, SAA, Reck Club and several other major organizations on campus, Technique included, all have female leaders this year.

“There are currently so many female leaders. We are not just getting in and surviving, but we’re really excelling at what we’re doing here. We’re always constantly pushing and reaching further. It’s not the WCR or my as a WLC leader. It’s just happening around us in every direction. Not just FASET or professional organizations. It’s everything,” said Bindi Patel, fifth-year BA.

“Tech has done a lot to empower female student leaders on campus. When my mom was on campus it was one in twelve. So much has changed. She used to be the only one in her classes. No one would want to partner with her they thought that she was too stupid and was going to bring down the grade. That’s never been an issue for me. I have been able to show. I am smart enough. I earned my way here. I have experience at Tech that my mom did not opportunity to do,” said Zola Zalesky, fourth-year IE and GRMN and former president of Ramblin’ Wreck Club.

“Someone noted that SGA has been talking about a lot of serious issues this year, and I’m not going to back down from anything. People thought I was going to break down and cry that this year has been kind of sucky, but it’s just another opportunity to pull your britches on and keeps going,” said Jen Abrams, fourth-year PUBP and SGA undergraduate president.

“It’s great to see women in positions of power.” DeMaeyer said. “Are they treated with the same respect? We have seen them break through that door, so what happens when they get there and how are we supporting them and treating folks to treat them as a man who’s a leader.”

However, DeMaeyer also cautioned, “There’s a very specific way that women are supposed to show up, whether that’s in our world or campus. The messages that we get are ‘a woman did this.’ ‘She’s a women engineer,’ which is great because we’re acknowledging that the woman is the first in doing something, or we’re acknowledging that she overcame sexism or gender bias … to get where she is, and that’s important.

“Sometimes we see that this is an exception versus this is the norm. I don’t know that’s intentional, but we’re in fields that are traditionally dominated by men so when women do break through, … [it is] really awesome and we should celebrate that.”

“People made such a big deal about Hillary Degenkolb being their first female driver in 30 years. Her being the driver is awesome, but I think some ways that it was frustrating to her because it became about how she is female rather than her being a great driver or overall awesome,” Zalensky said.

“I am a student just as anyone else, so I should not be getting any additional attention. People shouldn’t be saying ‘oh what you are doing is so cool’ when they wouldn’t be saying that to the guy next to me. What I am doing is amazing and awesome, but it isn’t because I am a girl; it is because what I am doing is amazing and awesome,” Nicholas said.

Despite Tech’s advancement with more female students leaders than ever, some feel that Tech still has some way to go.

“Tech didn’t really talk about those relationships that you need to have at work. That is what makes your work experience enjoyable or not enjoyable; the interactions and relationships you have with people. Tech does that really well on a professional level, teaching us how to communicate and problem solve, but at the same time, we are going into work forces, where they aren’t used to women; they think we are here because we are women,” Nicholas said.

“Whether they think less or more of you because of that, it is a very weird dynamic, where people look at you and don’t just see you as an engineer or a capable human being. They see you as a woman who has gone through all of this adversity, when all you are trying to do is learn. I did a co-op at my fourth semester here, and now coming back, that feeling doesn’t shake. I am more aware when professors are talking and dealing with me. They are much better at it than individuals in the work force.”

However, one thing still remained true. “One thing that brings all the women at Tech together is the passion. I say that because men are passionate as well … but I think that the women at Tech are so passionate about what they do, and there’s just a different dynamic. One thing brings the women together at Tech is their passion for life. How motivated we are to make an impact on the world,” Vaidya said.

  • Mary Ann Burney Allen

    One of the most useful things I learned at Tech as a woman was how to deal with men professionally. Men are different. They just are. And if you want to be comfortable when there are more of them than there are of you (which is true at the moment in most STEM fields) it’s just easier to be “one of the guys”. Now if the conversation ever got egregious I would stand up, but sometimes you just have to let the small stuff go. And ladies, be glad that The Ratio is what it is.

  • Great article, Brenda! One of my most disappointing moments at Tech as a woman in STEM was when I attended a M&M session hosted by WIE where guest speakers came in to talk about “Why Women Leave STEM.” The takeaway from this presentation was basically in order to fit in with the guys, you have to sacrifice some parts of your identity as a women or do things to overcompensate for that fact.

  • Sam Somani

    Great piece, B! Keep up the solid work.