To the woman sitting in the seat that is one third from the rear in Computer Science 201: I see you. Why are you sitting there? Because this position is close enough to actually hear the professor, but still too far for the majority of your peers to notice you. I know this because I was you. I often am you.
I don’t want to be reductive about the Yale STEM experience for women, or to generalize from one data point (science pun intended). I don’t even want to pick unfairly on computer science. But, when we talk broadly about issues for women in STEM, let’s use concrete examples.
Computer science thrives on a start-up mentality, a proverbially do-or-die, trial by fire approach. The best example of this is the infamous Computer Science 323, an episode in hazing straight from the Delta Kappa Epsilon handbook. In Computer Science 323, problem sets have estimated completion times of 30 to 50 hours a week, resulting in students often taking a mere three classes per semester to balance the struggle. Since computer science is understaffed, teaching fellows for Computer Science 323 are few and far between. Therefore, students must collaborate with each other to succeed — or even finish. And if you are a woman who already feels ostracized from her male counterparts, good luck.
This style of learning has a tendency to ‘weed out’ potential majors, which include a large number of women such as myself. It’s an ineffective system. It doesn’t select for the most competent; it selects for the most confident. Who, unsurprisingly, often happen to be men.
According to a 2015 study conducted by KPMG, men often overvalue their strengths, while women often undercut their own. In a learning environment dependent on possessing enough confidence to get through these ample doses of sadism, it is little wonder that only 7.6 percent of 2015 graduating Yale computer science majors were women. You don’t need to be in STEM to know that’s not a good ratio.
Here is an abridged list of what I wish someone said to me when I was a freshman sitting in that distinctive back third of the classroom, quaking in her proverbial boots.
You do not need to pursue a major for the sole purpose of not being seen as the stupid girl who drops the major. You are not a stupid girl, even if you do drop the major. When the men in your class laugh about how easy the problem set that took you 15 hours to complete was, it does not mean they are smarter than you. When you spend a disproportionate amount of time feeling that you are alone in your academic pursuits, that your peers think you’re stupid, that you’re not even that interested in learning about assemblers and compilers, that you can’t find anyone to do problem sets with, that you have no mentors in your department — it might be a damn good time to find a new major. Put your Buzzfeed definitions of feminism aside. True feminism means making choices from reason and not guilt.
In that computer science class, I felt guilty. Guilty about representing my gender poorly. Guilty about not fighting hard enough against the little hierarchies within those classes. Guilty, even, about my own guilt. And it took a long time to realize that I was not alone. Anyone who sticks out, just uncomfortably so, from the vast majority feels an undue pressure to prove themselves.
Of course, Computer Science 201 isn’t a bubble. It’s a manifestation of academic science in general where a power dynamic of normality exists. This summer, I saw the post-graduate world of scientific research in its flawed entirety. My research experience itself and my own mentor were incredible, but how do I factor this into the fact that I didn’t talk to one female professional astrophysicist all summer while working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab?
STEM classrooms are not universally unwelcoming to women, but when they are, we ought address the true causes before scratching our heads and chalking the difference up to pseudoscience about gender aptitudes. Yale’s intentions are pure when it comes to recruiting women in STEM, but should we not also worry about how we can best serve these students once they get here? Or will these women too end up in the back third of the classroom, mentally anguishing over whether or not to raise their hand?
The Yale experience, as any tour guide shuffling up Science Hill will tell you, is a varied one. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure story, be who you want to be and have others believe this projection. I want to be at the front of the classroom, holistically speaking. And I, like all of Yale’s women in STEM, deserve to be there.
Victoria Beizer is a junior in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .