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Female STEM students cite isolation, lack of role models

'Imposter syndrome' plagues some physics, CS students as they pursue male-dominated fields

This article is the third in a three-part series exploring the history and current state of women’s role in STEM education.

“I ask myself this constant stream of questions: have I proven myself? Do I belong here? Is my whole life going to be a struggle if I continue with this?” said Amy Butcher ’17, one of the few women in her sophomore class who is concentrating in physics.

“My first year, I constantly felt like I didn’t belong in a field that I desperately wanted to belong in. If I wasn’t so stubborn, I probably wouldn’t still be here,” she added.

The gender disparity Butcher sees in her physics classes are both intimidating and distracting, she said. “When I was a freshman, I would find myself counting in lecture to see how many people looked like me. There would usually be around four or five other women.”

Females are often in the minority across science, technology, engineering and math departments at Brown. Among sophomore concentrators in engineering, only 32 percent are female, according to a recent post by the Blog Daily Herald. Among computer science concentrators, that percentage dips down to 28. The gender breakdown in the neuroscience department, on the other hand, is more equal — around 52 percent of concentrators are female.

Nationwide, these statistics are even more split — around 18 percent of engineering and computer science majors are female, according to a National Public Radio article published in 2014.

These numbers are worrying because they can produce issues of isolation, said Jill Pipher, one of two female professors of mathematics at Brown. “There’s research out there that shows that until the percentages for an underrepresented group gets to around 25 percent, these members will feel very uncomfortable,” she added.

Tension in the classroom

Many students interviewed for this article agree that though there is no outward hostility expressed toward women, the atmosphere in certain Brown STEM courses can be uncomfortable and sometimes unwelcoming.

“In some classes, I’m definitely hesitant to ask questions because I don’t want to put myself on the line as much. And I think men are much more inclined to do that in this environment,” said Allison Hamburger ’16, a CS concentrator.

Several women expressed similar sentiments of implicit inferiority. “I feel like I have to be a representative of my gender … like if I ask a dumb question, it’s not just me as a person asking that. It’s me as a woman,” said Ardra Hren ’15, a CS concentrator.

Many female concentrators in both CS and physics said they struggle with “imposter syndrome,” a psychological phenomenon in which people feel a persisting sense of inadequacy despite clear competency.

India Prentice ’15, a CS concentrator, said she wishes her self-confidence was higher. “A lot of my discomfort is brought on by myself when I feel imposter syndrome. Luckily at this point I am able to recognize it, but that doesn’t make it any less vivid of a feeling.”

Offhand comments, jokes or misunderstandings can augment tension both in and outside of the classroom, said both male and female students.

“During class, a male peer once said something like ‘women don’t study physics because there’s a difference in aptitude and preference.’ And I was just shocked trying to explain why that was utterly incorrect,” said Kate Storey-Fisher ’16, a physics concentrator. “The best response is to call people out on it — interrupt the conversation and note that biases are being held,” she added.

Butcher recalled a specific moment when she felt especially uncomfortable about her place in STEM education. During a colloquium sponsored by the physics department last semester, one speaker made several jokes and bizarre comments about women in science, she said.

“You have to imagine this huge lecture hall, with around 80 people — five of whom are women. I was just sitting there, already feeling like I didn’t belong,” she said. “No one ever spoke to the professor about his comments, and so he had no idea that he had made me feel the most marginalized I’ve ever felt as a white woman.”

Gendered comments can make students feel less comfortable interacting with others, which is an integral aspect of conducting science, said Jason Hu ’15, a CS concentrator. “And when you don’t have people to work with for problem sets or projects, you really struggle. You don’t have that ability to get feedback on your work,” he added.

Department-specific biases

But many women in STEM departments also cite positive experiences in their classes. “My peers in physics were great. The guys I worked with were really inviting, and they always asked me to work with them on problem sets,” said Lily Hoffman ’17, an applied math concentrator who switched out of physics last year.

Female students often feel more comfortable in classes and departments that have more equal gender distributions, such as neuroscience, biology and chemistry, several female students said.

“I just kind of do my own thing, and I’m not really aware of any bias due to my gender or my race,” said Sahana Nazeer ’17, a neuroscience concentrator. “If I don’t get the job, I don’t think it’s because I’m a girl. It’s because my resume isn’t strong enough.”

“My lectures are usually around 50 percent female,” said Therese Carter ’16, a chemistry concentrator. “Overall, I’ve felt pretty supported. But there are always small issues, like professors calling more on boys in class,” she added.

A lack of female role models

Amidst the ongoing bias that affects female students in STEM at Brown, successful female role models can help overcome this discrimination. But many STEM departments’ faculty makeups are predominantly male. In the physics department — which possesses one of the most unequal gender distributions at the University — just 11 percent of the faculty are women.

Nationally, 14 percent of physics faculty members are women, according to data published by the American Institute of Physics.

“We should be above average at Brown, but we’re not,” said Professor of Physics Meenakshi Narain. “From the student’s point of view, I can see that they would want more representation to relate with us,” she added.

Many students said they are discontent with the lack of female faculty members and teaching assistants in STEM departments at Brown.

“In upper level courses, you typically don’t see female TAs on staff,” said Aisha Ferrazares ’15, a CS concentrator. “And I don’t think I’ve had any female CS professors. That doesn’t leave us with many role models.”

One student, who asked to remain anonymous for confidentiality concerns, ended up feeling more disappointed than inspired when she took a science class with a female professor.

“I wanted my professor to be the strong, confident, take-no-shit scientist that I want to be. But she would apologize so many times during lecture when she made a mistake, and she would be so flustered. It wasn’t what I wanted to see,” the student said.

“I’m a big believer in the role model effect. Seeing people who look like you makes you want to pursue those fields,” said Abi Kulshreshtha ’15, a physics concentrator and co-leader of the Physics Departmental Undergraduate Group.

Systems of support

The University funds several programs for women in STEM fields, including Women in Science and Engineering and Women in Computer Science. Both programs match younger female students with upperclassmen mentors and hold social and activist events, though WiCS is purely student-run.

Students gave mixed reports on the effectiveness of WiSE.

“WiSE wasn’t very supportive when I wanted to look for research or needed help on a problem set,” Hoffman said. “If there were a group of women at Brown who worked together and did research together, I think that would be really cool,” she added.

One of the most substantial problems with WiSE is that female first-years are often matched with mentors concentrating in different departments, Storey-Fisher said. “I just didn’t connect very well with my mentor,” she added.

But the program is moving toward grouping by concentration, said David Targan, associate dean of the College for science and a coordinator of WiSE.

Members of WiCS more unanimously praised the department’s student support group. Many students said WiCS has created a community of support as well as a safe space for conversations about issues faced by women in CS.

“WiCS does a good job pushing the conversation forward and making people aware of microaggressions or stereotypes within the community,” Hu said.

But several students said the University could do more to support its female STEM concentrators, especially in the physics and computer science departments.

“There’s never been a professor who has asked me about my experience. There’s no real support,” Butcher said. “As much as we’d like to believe that we’re this liberal place that deals with social issues well, it’s hard to paint a rosy picture. It’s really no one’s job to deal with it, so no one does,” she added.

Forging ahead

Students and professors alike had a multitude of ideas on how to close the gender gap and put an end to bias at Brown. Many said simply acknowledging the problem is an important first step.

“More professors need to feel comfortable talking about this type of thing. They need to know that they can bring it up and it’s okay. Instead, it’s just this silent thing where the minorities steadily drop out of the course,” Butcher said.

Creating a dialogue between professors and students is essential, Narain said. “We know our students within our classrooms, but we don’t know them as a community. Even if one student does not feel connected, that means we have not done our jobs,” she added.

Other solutions mentioned included hiring more female faculty members, building up awareness, creating more communities of support and implementing a stronger mentorship program.

“We could bring actual experts on gender and education into the classroom,” Hren said. “The (CS) department is welcoming and supportive but could be doing more.”

“Come into things with an open mind,” said Daniel Hoffman ’15, a CS concentrator. “It’s our preconceived ideas that tend to lead to a lot of our gender and diversity problems.”

The course of action to increasing the number of female students and faculty in STEM is complex, Pipher said. “It’s not something that can be remedied over night, but it can be remedied with a commitment to do so. This is certainly on the mind of our new provost, and I think we’ll see some changes in this direction.”


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