You Don’t Need to Be Superwoman to Succeed in STEM

January 22, 2017

A few weeks before I began my freshman year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I received an official-­looking envelope from a student group. Expecting information about a club or event, I was surprised to find such sentences as "MIT certainly lowers standards for women and ‘underrepresented’ minorities" and "The average woman at MIT is less intelligent and ambitious than the average man at MIT. The average ‘underrepresented’ minority at MIT is less intelligent and ambitious than the average non-‘underrepresented’ minority." (MIT’s Association of Student Activities later stripped the student group of its official recognition as a result of the unapproved mailing.)

I spent the remaining days before my departure for college questioning whether I deserved to go. Why hadn’t they accepted a smarter woman who wouldn’t let down her gender by proving that women didn’t belong at MIT? Once I arrived, I worked as hard as I could, spending nearly every waking moment in class, doing homework, working on research projects (at times more than one concurrently), and going to professors’ office hours. The entire time, I was terrified that I just wasn’t good enough. Every time I got a less-than-stellar grade, I worried that I was proving that that early letter was correct.

Four years later, at the 2001 MIT commencement ceremonies, I was the only woman who graduated with an undergraduate degree in ocean engineering. Every class that I took, with the exception of two music courses, was taught by a male professor. My classmates, project teams, study partners, and amazing mentors were all men. Most days I didn’t think much about being a "woman in STEM." I was too busy trying to be a student in STEM. In the back of my head, though, there was always that nagging question of whether I belonged.

Nearly 20 years later, as a professor teaching multiple sections of the first course in our mechanical-engineering sequence, my students have something that I never had: a female STEM professor. Representation matters. Representation also requires more than just showing up. Letting our students put their newfound knowledge to use in personally meaningful ways has been, in my experience, a way of empowering a diverse group of undergraduates.

Women pursue STEM majors because they are interested in the field, not to prove a point. Many female STEM students and professionals find themselves in situations where they are held up as an example of a "woman in STEM." Even when done with good intentions, foisting role-model status on people based solely on their gender adds extra pressure to what is often already a challenging, rigorous field. Studies have shown that the effect of "stereotype threat," the fear of reinforcing a stereotype, is present in STEM fields and negatively impacts women’s performance.

One of my goals is to demonstrate that you don’t need to be Superwoman (or Superman) to succeed in STEM. The myth of needing to be a straight-A student to deserve your spot in a STEM major is one we need to shatter. It encourages everyone in STEM to hide circumstances and results that they see as "failures," such as less-than-perfect grades, paper rejections, or being turned down for internships.

It is all too easy for students to idealize their professors: Our CVs and websites don’t show our own rejected grants, papers, and applications. I make a point of mentioning my own rejections and negative reviews in my undergraduate classes and research-group meetings. Similarly, my students are aware of the struggles I had in undergraduate and graduate courses.

Outside of the classroom, I run a large research group of undergraduates in a variety of STEM and education disciplines. When I look at the students who are, or have been, part of this group over the last decade, the thing I am most proud of is the community that these young researchers have built. Typically about 80 percent of our group is female, and it is made clear from everyone’s first day in the lab that we will not tolerate discrimination. Male or female, gay or straight, transgender or cisgender, black or white — when students join this lab, the group commits to supporting them and assisting one another with research projects. These young researchers work collaboratively on research that has an impact beyond a grade or a class ranking.

Simply saying that discrimination isn’t allowed isn’t enough. Rather, this is a chance for faculty members to lead by example and to make sure that our students can identify and speak up against such bias and discrimination. When, as has happened with seemingly increasing frequency these past few years, sexual harassment in STEM academe is in the news, it’s important that we discuss it, not ignore it. We must have difficult yet respectful conversations about our differences. We also must question assumptions and simplifications we make — when we say that a program is for women in STEM, are we equally welcoming to both trans- and cis-women?

A way to support female undergraduates in STEM is to teach all undergraduates that there is no single model for what STEM success looks like. There are multiple paths in these fields, and even the most successful-looking scholars and executives have faced some roadblocks and stumbles along the way. As we work to make STEM more welcoming and encouraging for women today, I hope that part of that is sharing honest stories of what life as a woman in STEM can be, and not just the highlights. Let’s create an environment where we see each student, regardless of gender, as a unique individual, and where we teach them all to appreciate and acknowledge the differences of others.

AnnMarie Thomas is an associate professor of engineering and entrepreneurship at the University of St. Thomas.