“To be a woman in STEM” is a phrase we hear so often that it almost becomes white noise. We glance at the surface of this concept and claim to understand the layers inside. To be a woman in STEM, to be overlooked while constantly being watched, to be held to lower standards while expected to work harder, to be a spectacle while cast into the shadows, to feel alone while numbers and pamphlets claim you are many. And to be a woman of color in STEM?
“I’m self conscious [that] people might think of me as just another stereotype.” – YC ‘22
The quick glance around the classroom as you ask yourself, “Am I the only one here?” The incessant feeling that all eyes are drilling into the back of your head, waiting for you to mess up. The care with which you speak, dress, and act, hoping to avoid the preconceived notions you already think they hold. It’s drowning. Drowning in expectations you set, drowning in expectations others set, and drowning in the complexities of your own psychology.
“I’m automatically a representative for my race and gender in class.” – YC ‘22
As women of color aspire to reach their goals, they are met with textbooks who praise the work of men while leaving out the history of women, are taught by professors speaking from pedestals of privilege, and are constantly reminded that this field was never meant for them. When trying to visualize their future, they scramble to find people who look like them, as others simply flip a page and see their mirror image among the words. Representation is many times overlooked but can be the sole reason for retention. It’s almost a never-ending cycle, striving to create that representation while needing to see it yourself. How does one cope with that? How do we as women of color balance our desire to be validated with our aspirations to create validation for others?
“Do I deserve to be here?” – YC ‘24
Many fields, but especially our own, regurgitate their value of diversity. Although this was meant to create spaces of inclusivity, it perpetuates the imposter’s syndrome already boiling within us. We ask ourselves, did we get here with our own merit or because there are not many of us? We internalize the constant, “Oh you got in because…” and the, “Why don’t you do…,” then suddenly their words become the voices in our heads. Although the thought lingers, the answer is simple. We embarked on a path never meant for our steps; we watched our peers stride past us with ease. Nevertheless, even as thorns scratched our legs, as vines wrapped our feet, we still caught up. There is no doubt that this spot was earned. No. This spot was deserved.
It seems to me, more than the institutional barriers, being in STEM is battling the push and pull within our minds. While the most important thing in class is passing the organic chemistry exam, as soon as we step outside the door, it shifts. Our minds are saturated with the women of color everywhere whose lives are taken with no remorse, whose worth has been determined by someone else. We turn a corner, open a newspaper, check our phone, and there it is: the young girls of color who go missing, who are stolen, who are forgotten…
A door is simply too weak to separate the lives we live in society from the focus we have in school.
“It’s kind of an isolating experience.” -YC ‘21
Telling ourselves that we have come so far doesn’t make this experience any easier. Being a woman of color in STEM is a privilege and a curse. Had we taken a different step as we walked this path, perhaps we would be the ones missing, stolen, or forgotten. Yet, even as we embark on this journey, the threat remains. We are not immune to the many ways society tears us down simply because we wear a lab coat.
“I belong in STEM.” – YC ‘24
The path that I claimed was never meant for us, has been walked on hundreds of times before by women who look just like us. The eyes drilling into your head? Those are your own. Women of color face an immense amount of obstacles, but we hold the true power to overcome them.
All quotes in this piece were provided by women of color pursuing STEM at Yale College.