Women in STEM: stories from MIT students

Women are still under-represented on STEM degree courses. Three female students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology speak about their experiences in male-dominated subjects
March 9 2017

Dishita T is an architecture student from India. She faced the cultural expectation to settle down and marry, which clashed with her desire to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and further her education. In the end, a prospective husband (a MIT graduate) encouraged her to apply to the university

I knew that I had a mammoth task ahead of me if I agreed [to apply to MIT]. My life would change overnight. I would have to leave my own firm immediately and go back to a student lifestyle.

Getting into a top university and the course of your choice requires months of preparation and I had only eight weeks. I would have to prepare for the GRE (Graduate Record Examination) and compile a portfolio of my work from the past 10 years. I would have to reach out to professors from the past five years and seek recommendation letters. I would have to find a way to fund my studies. And while doing all of this, I would have to fight opinions on how I was moving backwards in life.

I had no room to fail if I decided to take the plunge. I needed something more than a wish to make this work. I remembered the feeling of envy, mixed with inspiration, from my first visit to MIT. I recalled walking through the long corridor, peeping into the glass labs – into the world of science and innovation, and wanting to be part of it!

The following eight weeks were harder than I had imagined. But the harder you work, the luckier you get. I was fortunate to have family and friends who embraced my decision and supported me. My dad was my strongest supporter. He said: “Don’t worry about the funding, dear. The money [that] we wanted to spend on your wedding, we can spend on your dream to be at MIT.”

I would study, work on my portfolio and write essays all day, while my brother, my friends and the man who I was fighting for would stay up all night making revisions.

We wrote more than 30 versions of the essay. My dream had suddenly become a collective aspiration. At her wedding, one of my girlfriends told me: “I did not get to [undertake a] master's, but you are getting an opportunity to go for the second [degree]. The second one is on my behalf.”

It struck me how, even in this day and age, opportunities to pursue your dreams are rare and taken for granted. There is something divine about fighting for a shared dream. By just being admitted to a place such as MIT, [I am] part of the change.

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Irene C is an electrical engineering and computer science student. After going to a networking breakfast, which was attended by more than 100 women, during her MIT visit weekend, she was under the impression that gender imbalance would not be something that she would have to face. She is co-president of GW6, the graduate women’s group in the EECS department, that provides a space for women to grow and learn together

In my first class at MIT, I arrived 10 minutes early to a lecture hall, performing my very best “eager beaver”, only to watch wave upon wave of male students walk in behind me. I was confused and curious. Where were the women?

The numbers themselves are stark: 27 per cent of PhD students in EECS are female, while the EECS female faculty squeaks past at 21 per cent. MIT even sits ahead of the curve as only 20 per cent of EECS PhD recipients in the US are women.

I want to be clear that I personally have had an excellent experience as a woman in tech. Both in industry, during my two years at Dropbox, and now as a PhD student at MIT, I have thrived under an abundance of supportive peers and invested mentors. No sexist comments, no condescension, no implications that I got into MIT only because of my gender.

It has been pointed out that positive experiences can often get lost when only negative ones are highlighted.

Also relevant, however, is the onslaught of stories from friends. Nightmares of belittlement, harassment and exclusion, both at MIT and in graduate programmes across the country. Sexism is rarely malicious, but misguided institutional policies and internalised stereotypes can do real damage.

Retention rates for female PhD students in EECS lag behind those of male students and each step of the pipeline, from preschool to professor, leaks students.

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Nicole A is a biology student and found that females in the faculty inevitably gravitated towards each other to form a subconscious “girls’ corner”. This morphed into a regular lunch where the women would discuss their research and experiences

Our lunches brought about interesting conversations on all kinds of topics including impostor syndrome, which is when a high-achieving individual lives in fear of being called a fraud. It turns out that female graduate students are among the groups most affected by impostor syndrome.

I have learned about how time has changed perspectives on women in academic settings. We have had female faculty members tell us that they never contemplated the idea of becoming a principal investigator (PI) simply because, at the time, there were no female faculty in biological research.

I have met many faculty members who took a few years off biology to have children and take care of their families and, years later, continued in their academic track. These days, younger faculty members are able to raise their children while continuing their careers.

I have come to the conclusion that these changes have come about partly through an increasing awareness of the positive impact that maternity and paternity leave can have on a woman’s career. Having paternity leave conveys the message that both parents are expected to contribute equally to the upbringing of their children. This change in society’s view seems to have helped in allowing more women to pursue academic careers.

In addition, we have more women in science being mentors and motivating other women, like me, towards pursuing an academic career. I am glad to be in a place where I get to interact with female faculty members who have been breaking the glass ceiling for women in science.

Our lunches have also helped me cope with the struggles that come with being a graduate student. For example, I learned that struggling to interpret data and obtain results is normal and part of the learning process and scientific discoveries. Even great PIs had difficult times during their years of graduate school. Many of our guests have suggested that we focus on various aspects of our careers, not just research, and [that we] build good support systems. Attending these lunches has also positively impacted my research productivity by teaching me about tips and tools.

These blog excerpts are part of a new MIT graduate student blog that will go live later this month. 

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