​Battle Hymn of the Woman in STEM

It’s not about the numbers, it’s about the values assigned


UPDATED: Aug. 9, 2017, at 1:01 p.m.

When my friend first mentioned to me that her cousin works at Google, I asked how “he”—yes, I said “he”—likes it there. I have been coding since I was 13 years old. I currently study Computer Science. I interviewed with Google just a couple of months ago. I, more than most, understand that a woman can choose to pursue science, technology, engineering, and math and thrive while working for prestigious Silicon Valley tech companies. However, much to my own shame, I immediately assumed my friend’s cousin was male.

Sadly, it’s often not a wrong assumption to make. It is statistically true that men dominate STEM and STEM-related fields. A 2013-14 study states that of all students who received a bachelor’s degree in engineering or computer and information sciences, only around 18% were women. However, this disproportionality exists in other fields, as women dominate music, anthropology, and—surprise!—women’s and gender studies.

A central problem regarding the treatment of women in STEM is that people view numerical equality as the solution. Many STEM classes, particularly Harvard’s beloved CS50, boast their relatively high—which sometimes means a mere 30 percent—percentage of female students. This, yes, is wonderful. I proudly attended an all girls' school for the majority of my life, and am thus a product of the benefits of learning alongside my female peers.

However, I do not believe that women are predominantly hindered by their being a numerical minority in STEM, but rather by the degrading ways in which they are regarded. It would be foolish of me to assume, even in a predominantly female STEM class, that I would be perceived as equally intelligent as my male classmates. And that, unfortunately, is the issue.

It is not about being outnumbered. People often find strength through seeing themselves as underdogs, and I personally find this minority status empowering, as it continuously urges me to prove people wrong by rising above the low standards they set. The issue instead stems from others' warped, inherent assumption that your aptitude for the subject lags at blocks behind the boys, and continues to linger there.The worst harm we can inflict on women in STEM, on the revolutionaries who choose to pursue a field knowing they will face prejudice and ridicule, is to fail to give their work the admiration it deserves.

If people believe a male science student to be unintelligent, perhaps it is due to his answering a question incorrectly or his inadequate social skills (like mine). Having that as the source of the assumption that you are unintelligent is, unfortunately, a privilege. The notion that I, on the other hand, am unintelligent is likely formed the instant I walk into a lecture hall. Or, hilariously, the second I walked up onto the Sanders Theatre stage as CS50's first volunteer of the year. And, although others may assume it, I do not believe I was chosen from the crowd "just because I am a woman." Please.

Our biggest concern should not be the the lack of numerical equality between men and women in science. We should be, though, immensely troubled when my female peers and I are perceived as unintelligent because of it. Women in STEM are so much more than that. We are pioneers in our fields, becoming role models for generations to come—for girls who were once just like us. We are brave for choosing to pursue careers in which we are conscious of the prejudice, perceived unintelligence, and hateful and degrading commentary we may encounter. It’s also important to acknowledging that, as a white woman, my experience in STEM differs from those of the women of color beside me. I hope we can begin to hear more of their stories, as intersectionality is important in such discussions.

We do not reside at blocks behind. We are here, sitting beside you in classrooms, completing the same problem sets and test evaluations. We are here, and we always have been. We are the minority, yet we will not allow preconceived notions of our lack of value to preclude us from a seat at the table.

We draw strength from each other, from the women who came before us and who are to follow: a force of unparalleled magnitude.

Madeleine L. Lapuerta ’20 lives in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.


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