Being on an all-girls robotics team is kind of like living in a commune. During team meetings, I exist in a ladies-only bubble alongside my creative, enthusiastic, supportive teammates, but pushing out of that bubble into the rest of the STEM community is a pretty drastic transition. Over the ten years I’ve been involved with FIRST, I’ve become used to the situations and challenges that being a girl in STEM presents. Sometimes unnerving comments or actions are blatantly unfair, or other times just accidentally sexist. It’s important to maintain a conversation about issues of sexism in STEM and the culture shift that needs to happen before they can improve, but for the immediate future, being able to professionally deal with gender-related criticism or discrimination is an important skill.
It Has to Start Somewhere
During registration for an event my team organized recently, the coach of an elementary school FLL team asked us to split his team up for educational workshops, so that the boys could learn about building and programming and the girls could learn about core values and project research. I asked him if these workshops were the ones the kids had requested to participate in. He hadn't even thought to ask the team members about what they wanted to learn - he just naturally assumed that the boys would be more interested in building and working with robots and the girls would want to work on their team cheer and project.
This coach wasn't an evil misogynist out to segregate the future workforce - he was just subconsciously making conclusions based on tired gender stereotypes. The first step to being able to respond to criticism from others is to watch out for these kind of assumptions, which we've always been taught to make. It’s okay to gently call people out for things like this - most of the time, they won’t even realize why they made their conclusion in the first place!
(After talking to his kids, the coach decided to put both the boys and girls on his team in robot and core/project workshops. The teacher of the programming workshop received a thank-you email from one of the girls on the team after the event.)
Use Your Resources
Having an all-girls FTC team to come back to after negative experiences has been incredibly important to me over the past five years. Support from peers is the best tool you can use - if there aren’t girls on your robotics team you can talk to, there are tons of other places you can look. FIRST Ladies is a great community to leverage, as well as organizations like Women in Technology or the Society of Women Engineers - do some Googling and find a group in your area that has coding coffees or other events, and go! Being around people who face the same difficulties as you is not only relieving, but also a learning experience.
Sexism and Power Dynamic
Standing up to someone who’s “on your level” can be hard enough - what do you do if you feel that someone above you in job title or other qualification is being sexist? Unfortunately, because there is so much variation in personal relationships, these circumstances are tricky. The best thing you can do is talk to a woman in your life who has dealt with this before and explain the situation in as much detail as you can. Your response to a boss or professor will be different than your response to a coach or mentor, and discussing what to do with someone you trust will help you figure out the best way to handle it.
Sometimes People are Straight-Up Jerks
You can probably think offhand of some specific experiences or comments that have left you speechless with their utter misogynistic ignorance or stupidity. There are two basic ways to handle situations like this: you can either respond with biting sarcasm (that will probably be lost on the person anyway), or you can mentally blast Hilary Duff and forget about it. Both are equally satisfying.
If You Feel Unsafe
Ignorant assumptions are one thing. Dumb comments are another. But if anyone ever makes you feel legitimately very uncomfortable or threatened by targeting your gender, you absolutely have the right to (1) get out of the situation as quickly as possible and (2) report it. Gender-based harassment within the STEM community is a major reason that women end up dropping out of tech careers*, and it can only stop if victims and observers take action.
But What If You Do Marketing?
A lot of the criticism and negativity surrounding girls in STEM focuses on the premise that women don’t or can’t build robots, write code, and do math. So most of the response from women is, logically, to prove that we rock at those things. Along with the vehement “Um, yes we can!,” however, sometimes comes a weird reverse discrimination - against girls who have jobs in business, media, or presentation within their teams or companies. If someone is giving you grief for doing a non-robot-related job on your team, you can use any of the same tactics that are used for responding to sexist criticism that is robot-related. Whatever you do, be proud of doing it awesomely - you and your talents don’t deserve anything less.
This blog post was written by Annika Garbers, of FTC Team GENIUS. Sign up to blog for FIRST Ladies on the schedule.
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