The first time I can remember showing an interest in STEM was when I was in kindergarten. A guest speaker had come in and was telling us about some of his work as a scientist. Though exactly what it was that excited me is fuzzy, I clearly remember getting picked up and telling my mom all about it. “Mommy, I want to be a scientist!” She kind of laughed in a rather mocking way. “That’s not something for a girl to do.” My friends at school would always tell me that “boys’ brains were wired for math and science,” so it was “normal” for girls to hate math and science. At 5 years old, my dreams of being a scientist were murdered by those around me because I felt entirely inadequate.
A couple years later, my mom decided it was time to sit me down and show me the men she had swooned over as a teen in the popular 80’s movie, Top Gun. To my mother’s dismay, it was not the sweaty, shirtless men that had me smitten, but the F-14 Tomcats that flew across the screen. “Mommy, I want to fly just like that!” Another burst of laughter, “Good luck trying to get in any fighter jet as a girl.” Despite all of the discouragement, every year I was the only girl to ever participate in our school-wide math competition and the boys would all tease me.
When I reached 5th grade, my school allowed for students to independently study math at their own pace. Of course, I signed up immediately to do this, and again, was the only girl. I took Math 5 and 6 that year and the following year Pre-Algebra and Algebra 1. Before starting middle school, I took a placement test. Though I had all of the proof of the levels of math I had taken on my transcripts and was accused of cheating for having abnormally high scores on the math portion of the test, they refused to put an incoming 7th grade girl in Geometry, meanwhile, a boy who I had gone to elementary school who had completed Pre-Algebra was allowed to be moved into Algebra 1. I protested and asked to test out, but they denied my request. I then began to despise all things STEM.
By the time high school rolled around, I was set on a career path requiring absolutely no math. Second semester of my freshman year, I was given a huge slap in the face when I was forced into FIRST. I was so angry that I had to join my team. I was shy, uncomfortable, and an adversary of STEM. I was determined to be miserable. After 6 weeks, I had helped build a robot that I assumed only 10 or so “losers” would see. My views of FIRST drastically shifted after my first competition. Not hundreds, but thousands of students, 60+ teams. FIRST was much more enormous than I had anticipated. Honing in on my deepest fear, my team forced all rookie members to go scouting. I had just developed enough courage to talk to my own teammates and now I was expected to talk to perfect strangers! I was terrified, but after the first few awkward discussions, I felt a strange sense of comfort and belonging. FIRST felt like a home. My home. High stress levels balanced with talking to new people and working on a robot for 12 hours; I was in love. The following week, I, the rookie freshman, was yelling at seniors to get work done for our second regional event. The second year, I re-enrolled with vigor. I was ecstatic about the next season and what was in store. However, with this new passion came new feedback from my family and school. My grandfather, “You cannot do anything in that sort of field; it is not fitting for a girl.” Not fitting for a girl? Every time I was at a family function I was berated with negative comments about my new found love. Any college I showed interest in I would be told I wasn’t the right fit. If I started talking about a project that interested me, I would be shut down. At school, since I go to a small school, the principal got word I was in robotics and wanted to do engineering instead of a liberal arts career. Every day he would ask something along the lines of “Are you sure you want to be in a man’s world?” He constantly tried to change my mind. In the beginning of my junior year, my mentors had seen all of my growth and kept moving me up in ranking. I started our business team, I was teaching rookies new things, contacting sponsors, and much more. The beginning of the 2015 build season began with a hard blow. When talking about submitting a design for prototyping, I was approached by a senior on the team. He pulled me aside and said, “What do you think you’re doing? Prototyping and design isn’t your area. Stick to business and getting us snacks. You’re a girl. Let’s be real. You will never be an engineer, so you might as well try something you’re good at.” I went home that day furious and in tears. How could he talk to me like that? I did so much work for the team. His team literally would not exist if not for me. Every time I saw him, he would give me a look as if to say, “You don’t belong.” His attitude entirely changed when my mentors officially declared me captain and nominated me for Dean’s List. However, that was not the end of sexism on my team. We were desperately trying to work as hard as we could to finish this robot for an event in the next few weeks. I went into our machine shop to finish up fabrication on a part that was necessary to complete the lift mechanism on our robot that I had been working on tirelessly along with our active intake system. Our mechanical lead, whom I had given the title, stood in front of the drill press, which was all I needed to use and said, “Get out. You’re in the way of all of the guys who are actually working.” My safe haven began to flood with hostility. I decided I would not be shaken. I knew what I wanted and no amount of criticism or sexism could keep me from achieving my lofty goals of getting a doctorate in aerospace engineering. Despite my firmness in my goals, I knew some action needed to be taken. I discussed this problem with a mentor and of course he gave the team a talk on treating teammates with respect. I felt a sense of victory, but my bouts with sexism were far from over.
I had been selected as a delegate for Girls State, which was sponsored by the American Legion Auxiliary. Prior to attending, we were required to go to a tea. At this tea, a fellow delegate was seated next to me. In order to fill the awkward silence, she asked every delegate what they did on their free time and what they wanted to do in the future. The responses around the table were relatively similar: sports, Model UN, student government, debate, dance, theater, choir. She came to me last. “Well, how about you?” Of course, I was elated I had the chance to talk about FIRST so I blurted out, “I do robotics and I want to be an engineer and….” She cut me off, “Darling, you know that IS a man’s job, right? Building robots sounds so filthy.” A man’s job? I was no longer interested in attending Girls State. If all of the girls would be like that, there was no way I would fit in. Of course, I went anyway. To my surprise, there were many girls who were just as enthused by STEM as I was and the friends I made there were extremely supportive of my goals.
This year, I have been given the worst teacher at my school for two periods. In short, he loves to fail honor roll students and blemish their perfect records. My grades in his classes were dropping with nothing being entered in and he was failing me on assignments that were perfect. Unfortunately, his two classes are STEM (AP Physics C and AP Computer Science). When my dad and I went to complain to the principal and counselors, the principal said, “The class average appears to be fine. The work must have finally caught up with you. I told you women were not meant for STEM.” It’s my final year there, so at this point, I do not care what he says nor have I ever, but I will not let this happen to girls at my school any longer, so I am taking steps to improve this attitude that has taken over my school. Though I do not believe it will change entirely while I am there, an acceptance of women in STEM is slowly spreading. While I still face sexism with my family and school, I cannot let them win by quitting my dreams.
I tell you about the events in my life because they lead me to where I am today. Although many of them, fraught with sexism and judgement, impaled my excitement for STEM, they pointed me on the path which now makes me a proud engineering student, and captain of my FRC team. I tell you my story, knowing many of you face similar adversity. The words “It’s a man’s job” may have been thrown around you as well. Know that it takes great courage to stand up against what others foolishly believe, and swim opposite of society's strong current, but it is this courage that made people like Amelia Earhart, Karen Nyberg, Maja Mataric, and Sally Ride, successful. If you are to take one thing from my rant, remember that if you stand proud, and strong, you can, and will be successful.
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