Features  Sy(STEM)ic misogyny

A look at gender dynamics in science

Updated February 24.

As a woman just starting her science degree here at McGill, I began to reflect on my own experiences with discrimination in science, the experiences of my friends, those that I have read about, and I found myself wondering what the experiences have been of women in science here at McGill. Are people facing difficulties, or do people feel comfortable and happy with the way things are? What is it like to be a woman in science at this university and what the barriers, if any, have the women here faced?

In an attempt to answer these questions, I invited women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) to come and discuss the issues they face on a day-to day basis in sciences at McGill. The following is a collection of these stories and experiences.


Arielle’s experience

I always considered science my strong point in school: I was inquisitive, logical, and really into figuring out how stuff worked. The fact that I was a girl changed nothing about my passions.

I was exposed to science’s gender issue from grade five onward through the science fair, where students got to be real scientists and pick their own projects. At first, they were mandatory for everyone, but as we grew up, the gender ratio became more and more skewed. It wasn’t as simple as more boys than girls: different fields of science were dubbed “guy fields” and “girlfriends.” The biomedical row at the national fair was filled with smiling young female scientists, while I was one of three girls in the physical sciences section.

This subject gap became even more prominent in high school, when I was again one of three women in my physics class (despite the nearly 50-50 ratio in biology and chemistry). Were women less capable of building catapults and calculating kinematics? The gender imbalance alone scared my peers. I know I felt the same way about computer science in high school: it was the place for boys with glasses who played video games.

I did well in physics, and I participated in enrichment programs and contests. I was constantly encouraged by my female physics teacher, who emphasized the need for women in science. However, I was left wondering why I had to be so special. Why did I need special treatment and support?

Alone or not, I progressed from physical sciences to the even more male-dominated world of computer science. Though being the only female in the computer lab didn’t bother me too much, the ‘bro-culture’ certainly did. Coding competitions were laced with insensitive jokes, unwanted flirtation, and a complete disregard of any female teammates. I had to push to get my voice heard and respected in the tech community. It took determination, perseverance, and many instances of almost giving up. Many women don’t have the time or desire to work through the barriers, and they shouldn’t have to. Now I’m working from the inside to better the situation. As it turns out, a lot of people like to ignore the issue altogether.

I found this out the hard way on social media, where I spent hours trying to convince people that the obstacles I experience on a daily basis actually exist. Not only were they not listening, they also opted for personal attacks instead of discussion. It shouldn’t be so hard to talk about this.

Why do we still have to talk about this? Because I don’t want to be recruited based on my gender identity first and skill-set second. Because I don’t want to hear about another woman being too scared to go to an amazing event, or enter a field she’s passionate about. Because I’m tired of being underestimated. Because there are still people ignorant to the fact that this is still an issue.

— Contribution by Arielle Vaniderstine


Jill’s experience

There have been three separate occasions where educated men, with good intentions, have sat me down and explained to me how it has been scientifically proven that women are inherently worse at science. First was when I was 17; it was over dinner with some boys who were trying to explain why there were only a few girls involved in our science club compared to the amount of boys. The second time was a couple years later, in a conversation with an older man who was complimenting me on being successful in school ‘despite my biology.’ Finally, the third was just last summer, and the comment came from a classmate in my physics class at Concordia.

It’s a common theory used to justify certain remarks – they explain that women’s brains are smaller, that they have done tests showing that the areas of their brains responsible for math and science are smaller or less developed than in a man’s. They point to other biological differences: women take on mothering, or prefer social sciences, whereas men like science and logic; women face more pressure to look nice and feminine, and science doesn’t leave much time to get dressed up and do your hair in the morning, plus who will see you looking so pretty if you’re spending all your days in a lab? These are the reasons I have heard from both men and women for why there are still so few women in science.

The first time I encountered sexist remarks like this, I was so surprised I didn’t know what to say. Plus, I was outnumbered by the boys I was talking to and, overall, pretty uninformed. I could feel that these comments were wrong, but these boys were really smart and, to my 16-year-old brain at the time, what they were saying did technically make sense. So I wondered if maybe it was true.

I often felt special growing up to be the only girl, or one of few girls, involved in science clubs and groups. Last summer, though, I tried to stand up to the arguments thrown at me years earlier about women’s brains being inferior in the science field. I sent the men articles comparing intelligence between men and women, as well as articles about women’s experiences now in science. I explained to the best of my abilities the uninviting nature that male-dominated settings can have.

In high school, my friend told me she thought that girls in our grade would have enjoyed science clubs, but didn’t have an interest in joining them because the environment was so uninviting. I didn’t know what she was talking about at the time, but looking back I think that definitely could have deterred them – there were lots of gross comments from guys all over. If you made a mistake or did something dumb, there was always someone who’d say something along the lines of, ‘Oh, dammit woman, go home and make me a sandwich.’ It’s not horrible, not scarring, but it’s the sort of thing where, if you have a choice, you’d prefer to just… not.

So coming to McGill was like a breath of fresh air for me, though this might have been partly due to my not really being involved in science since I came here; I am just this year starting my program, and have become involved in activities outside of the science technology engineering and math (STEM). Recent conversations with peers made me curious about what it’s like to be a woman in science today, especially at McGill – with all this talk of equity from student and departmental groups, organizations for empowering women, and the general progressiveness of the school’s student body, what, if any, are the problems faced on a regular basis by students who are not the stereotypical nerdy guy in a labcoat?

I was interested in hearing more about people’s thoughts on the issue of women in STEM, so I held an event inviting the McGill community to discuss their experiences with gender in science. About 25 students and professors came to the event.


Undergraduate experiences

At the event, Emilie, a third-year Electrical Engineering student, told me that she and her friends face sexist and discriminatory comments every single day.

“If you’re looking for experience, boy have I gotten some,” she said.

She told me about a robotics project where she worked with five guys. “We each had a role in the group, and I was doing testing and documentation on the whole project. The jury came up and said, ‘Oh, tell me your names and your role.’ I [responded] ‘I’m Emilie, and I’m documentation,’ and he goes, ‘Oh, yeah, the women, they’re always the secretaries in the group, they like to make things nice and pretty.’” Everybody cringed.

“And this isn’t unheard of, this is a very normal thing,” Emilie told me as she recounted this story. “Everyone laughed, including me, because I just felt super uncomfortable and like I couldn’t speak out […] these are things that happen really often and people don’t necessarily think they’re being mean, or not inclusive, or sexist.”

Another student, this time in Chemical Engineering, told me that she was only just becoming involved in Engineering groups and activities – after being at McGill for more than two years – because she hadn’t felt like she fit into her program due to a lack of gendered support.

“I distanced myself from engineering for a long time because it made me feel unwanted, or like I didn’t really fit in it. I realized that’s not the solution to anything. I want to be an engineer and I want [the program] to want me to be an engineer.”

Many of the undergrads brought up a general lack of confidence, fear of sexual harassment, and scarcity of female role models in STEM.

“All of my science professors are men,” said one undergrad, pointing to the lack of female representation in higher-up academic roles.

I asked Emilie if she ever felt intimidated, and wondered aloud to her about how professors could have never felt intimidated.

“I think I get it, because I get used to being the only girl, and sometimes it’s kind of nice, not going to lie,” she said. “You kind of brace yourself for the sexist comments and just be like, ‘This is the way it is.’ It just kind of becomes normal.”


Professors chime in

Of course, institutional problems were also brought up by several people. Most of the professors who came to the event (as well as a biology professor who emailed me beforehand) said they had had serious difficulties with McGill’s childcare system, which, according to one professor, has a huge waitlist due to a lack of space compared to the demand.

Another physics professor spoke about her experiences with sexual harassment.

“I know that I’ve had some problems when I was a graduate student and one of the post-docs that I was working with was basically harassing me. I had to work five feet away from him, so it was a real source of stress for a long time. My advisor’s response was, ‘It’s just cultural differences, get over it,’ and that was not really the response I was looking for.”

She continued, “It stemmed back to there not being any real path forward for responding appropriately to these situations. I think a lot of these institutions are moving forward and establishing avenues of communication and best practices so that when an advisor has a student come to them and say, ‘I’m having a problem,’ the advisor knows what to do. Educating our faculty on inappropriate responses is an important move forward as well.”

A math professor spoke to the smaller interpersonal interactions that some of the undergraduates mentioned, saying she felt at conferences that her colleagues weren’t taking her seriously. She said benevolent acts, such as holding the door open more explicitly, were part of the problem.

“I think it’s called benevolent chauvinism, when someone opens the door for you and says, ‘Oh, that’s so good we’ve got some women in physics.’ The [idea] is the fact that you should protect women because women are considered weaker […] this often goes with [the fact that] they don’t take women as seriously.”

The physics professor, however, didn’t agree that this should be a concern. “The door holding doesn’t bother me. […] Let them hold the door,” one said.

One of the physics professors who came to the event said that she was intrigued when undergraduates came to her saying they felt intimidated in spaces dominated by men, saying she never felt this way herself.

“I went through all my education in physics always surrounded by men and I never felt intimidated. I only felt difficulty once I got married and had kids. I’m hearing from undergrads that they are intimidated, and I’m wondering, why is it, are the undergrads misbehaving or what?” she asked the room.


Discussion, and further study

These testimonials can’t represent everyone, but to me what’s so interesting is the disconnect between the experiences of these women, who are either in STEM or well on their way to joining, versus us younger students who, judging from my conversations, seemed to be more open to acknowledging the problem. I have never worked in STEM proper, nor have my friends, yet we see the problem so clearly. Why couldn’t they?

Hearing the stories of the women I spoke to was in some ways disappointing, but it also brought me hope. For many, it seems, the environment of STEM is still highly intimidating, and problematic fields and a certain level of misogyny seems to be expected. Common gender stereotypes continue to resurface. I was struck by the interest the event I held received from so many people. From the large turnout of students and professors at the event to the generally positive responses from interviewees and from professors I contacted, it is evident to me that now, more than ever, people are opening up to discussing the problem of women in STEM. Many are eager to fix this problem.

Of course, I could never cover the huge scope of the problem of women in science and technology. To get a fuller picture, more departments and identities would have to be involved, and unfortunately the group of people that came out to the event offered a limited scope. The collection of stories, from a handful of women, could never represent all women in STEM fields at McGill.

But, in the end, I hope this essay sheds some light on what it’s like to be a woman in science here at McGill. This may be just a snapshot of people’s experiences, but it is a start. I hope that in bringing these stories to the table, and putting them together, we can move beyond the question of ‘Is there really still a problem?’ to figuring out how we can tackle gender discrimination in sciences.

A previous version of this article did not credit Arielle Vaniderstine with her personal narrative.