Have you ever felt as if the walls were closing in on you? It feels suffocating and confusing. It feels like everyone is against you. It feels like you have nowhere to go. Dramatic? You may believe I am over-exaggerating the sensation, but in reality, that feeling exists. It exists for a lot of issues. It exists for stereotypes. It exists for those women who try to enter STEM fields but are blocked by the men with traditional views.
To many, this topic of women in STEM seems like the cliché issue everyone talks about. To be honest, I may have felt the same way a few years prior. However, when you truly experience it, the world around you feels different. I was sitting in my biology table group that day, and we were working on our natural selection game that was to be presented to the class. Naturally, my STEM-oriented mind declared that it would be ‘much easier if we could do this by code’ and that ‘I should join the programming club to try it’. The two boys, who happened to be part of the Programming club, chuckled a little bit. That did not bother me though – maybe they were just laughing at my statement. That opinion soon vanished when one of them asked, “Are you sure about that? I’m not too sure you would fit in there.” While the two fist bumped each other, I felt mortified. I felt confused. I felt suffocated.
I thought about those three minutes for the rest of the day. I felt that knot in my stomach. I felt as though I was not good enough. However, I also felt that I still needed to try. I walked into that same Programming club the next day, and unfortunately, felt the walls constricting even further. Nine boys and me. They all chatted amongst themselves and probably did not even notice I was there.
That week, I truly realized that stereotypes exist. I confronted myself with the fact that those stories my mother told me about her technology job were true. Those gender stereotypes really do play a role in today’s society, because if they are so impactful in a high school, their impact on the career industry is unimaginable.
Sometimes, we, as humans, do not realise the effect we are having on another person’s life. These boys in the Programming Club fell into that category. Nevertheless, as horrible as they might have made me feel, the experience led me to make a change. I gathered up some courage and drafted up a plan to begin a ‘Girls Who Code’ club at my school. I spent hours working on it, making it perfect to present to the principal. The Monday morning I was supposed to present it, I woke up extra early and wore my best clothes. I practiced my speech nearly 20 times and had never felt more ready to explain my solution.
So, when I walked in to his office, I gave my presentation perfectly – no stumbling, no um’s, no fidgeting. My principal, on the other hand, did not think so – ‘Girls Who Code is a gender-based club’. I walked out of that room respectfully, but my mind felt like shouting out insults. I could not join the Programming Club because it did not welcome girls and I cannot start the Girls Who Code club because it tries to welcome girls. It really felt as if the entire school was plotting against me.
Looking at the statistics, around 25% of women hold technological jobs. That is one-third of how many men hold such jobs. Women are always the last to look at, always the ones people believe are useless, when in reality, women who go into engineering have the same qualifications, capabilities, and perseverance as men, possibly even more. We live in a society where the expectations for women in comparison to men vary by a lot. Women need fewer opportunities because they are not going anywhere anyway. I have come across that phrase enough times in my life for it to become a trend. Why? Why are women thought of as lesser? There is no difference in the way we are created that should differentiate us from men in terms of our value. It has become our responsibility to show men that we are as capable as they are, that we can make the same changes they make. Maybe, one day, that statement from before will become: Women need fewer opportunities, because they utilise each one with all that they have. In order for that statement to change, I knew I needed to take my own. It was and still is my job to show the boys at my school that we are no less, and although I had been let down earlier that day, I was not planning on stopping.
After weeks of work, I stormed into the principal’s office once again and presented my case. This time, however, I had no notes, speeches, or materials. Instead, I was speaking from my heart. I rambled on and on about the statistics I knew, the emotional distress I felt, and the impact we could make. Later that day, I got an email later detailing that my club got approved. For once in this journey, the feeling of suffocation receded.
Today, I host over 30 girls every Tuesday who were too afraid to join the Programming Club. I host over 30 girls who have learned how to code even better than the boys in the next class. I host over 30 girls who believe in themselves and are letting go of that suffocating feeling. Most importantly, I host over 30 girls who have taught me to be more courageous. Even today, I still face the same stereotypes. A year later, in my computer science class, I was told to not take the project as it ‘would be too hard for me.’’. This time, however, I said I would do it. This time, I broke the stereotype in front of the ones who believe it. This time, I did not let the suffocating feeling rule over me.
I know that I will face issues regarding women in STEM all my life, but I know that I have a way to overcome it and reach higher. I advise all girls in STEM to continue reaching and to continue with their aspirations. Do not give up because someone else does not believe in you. Do not give up because someone else told you to. Do not give up when you feel like you are suffocating, and I promise, you will go beyond your dreams.
By Pranati Dani
In collaboration with YWMTU (@yourwordsmattertous)