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Survival Tips That Could Save Your Life… As a Woman in STEM

Graphic: Georgie Kamvissis

There are a few situations in life where you may find yourself in survival mode. In these situations, it is crucial to act swiftly and effectively to maximise your outcomes, and so familiarising yourself with survival tips for different scenarios can go a long way. These scenarios may include getting lost in the woods, coming face-to-face with a grizzly bear in the Canberran wilderness, or being a woman-identifying student in a male-dominated STEM field.

Here’s the situation: you have just begun your first semester of engineering. Other women in your tutorials seem to be rarer than over-zealous boys who won’t try to impress you with “I’m actually really into smart girls!”. The number of acquaintances who have feigned concern over your degree choice with responses ranging from “Wow, aren’t you ambitious!” to “Are you sure? I hear the math is like super hard…” has reached double digits. Someone just explained your own high school physics project to you, and that guy in your computer workshop just tried for a hug after you pointed out the fatal error in his Arduino code. What do you do?

Step 1: Finding Shelter

When in a foreign and unknown environment, finding shelter early is crucial to your survival. Your own shelter may come in many different forms, ranging from a comfy pillow fort in the corner of Hancock Library to a supportive circle of like-minded peers with whom you can rant. The latter of the options, whilst immensely rewarding, can be a significant challenge when unfamiliar with the new terrain. So, where and how does one construct such a shelter? Here are a few strategies:

  1.  In your tutorials, look for others who share the same ‘dead-behind-the-eyes look’ of enthusiasm when basic scientific principles are being mansplained to them.

These individuals may also be seeking shelter, so it can often be of mutual benefit to team up against the oncoming challenges. This may be achieved by setting up an unofficial, utopian all-girls table in your MATH1115 class, or otherwise pairing up with the sole girl in your tutorial for a group assignment. Remember: you are of no obligation to spread yourselves out as the token pieces of gender diversity. You know what environment you thrive best in; find it.

  1.  Go to the new student events for clubs and societies.

If you can survive an hour of smiling, nodding and having to slowly explain where exactly the city/town you’re from is, you might find you meet others with similar interests. Especially if you’re new to Canberra, these events are fantastic opportunities to build your circle. If you’re looking to attract others in your field of study who share the same experiences as you, try using the following fun phrases in group situations:

“Only 1 in 5 senior professor positions in Australia are held by women.”

“Women in STEM have to be 2.5 times more productive than their male counterparts to be viewed as equally competent.”

“The ongoing cycle of masculine culture in STEM discourages women from pursuing careers in engineering, physics, and mathematics out of fear of failure.”

Step 2: Locate (Mental) Nourishment

The transition from a high school to a university environment can be emotionally tolling, so it is imperative to locate sources of support. As a woman in a male-dominated STEM field, it can feel like your skills and abilities are constantly being scrutinised. This can be greatly taxing for your self-confidence! If inklings of self-doubt arise, keep the following points in mind

  1. Confidence does not equal competence.

You’re no less intelligent than those in class who put their hands up for every question. Especially when you’re in the minority of a group, getting involved can feel incredibly daunting. Even the cleverest of us can feel uncomfortable in groups. This does not make you any less worthy.

      2. You’re not letting anyone down by getting an answer wrong in class.

Especially in fields such as physics, mathematics, and engineering, being the only woman-identifying student in a class can make you feel like the sole female -representative in that field. Think about this: If a man gets the wrong answer, then that one man isn’t good at math. If a woman gets the wrong answer, then women are not good at math. This is known as the ‘burden of representation’ that is experienced by minority groups in society. This feeling of constant judgement can be incredibly hard to shake, but don’t let it hold you back. The only person whose opinion of you that matters is you, and things do get so much better when you care less about what other people think.

Step 3: Creating Fire

A well-built fire can create warmth and protect you from outside conditions, while also making some people feel very uncomfortable. You can be that fire.

Speaking out and advocating for change is imperative to the creation of an accepting and encouraging environment for women in STEM. Here are some simple ways you can be a part of that change:

  1.   Stand up for yourself and the women around you
  2.   Stay informed and support groups advocating for change

Remember, you are in a huge position to make a change. Just by being here, you are making the journey just that little bit easier for the next girl who follows the path that you are on, and for the girl after her, and the girl after her, and the girl after her… And maybe someday soon, the challenges you faced won’t even exist for girls who dream of a career in STEM. You are playing a part in making that dream a reality.

You are strong. You are smart. You can do this.