‘Women bring down the grade average’: Lancs students on sexism in STEM subjects

Women make up less than 20 per cent of the chemical engineering cohort

Today is International Women’s Day! It’s a day to celebrate all women and appreciate every accomplishment – big or small. It’s also a day to highlight the gender inconsistencies that continue in the university world.

The theme for International Women’s Day is #ChooseToChallenge. Even at the university level, many women in STEM feel as though they don’t belong and have to work significantly harder than their male counterparts to achieve the same level of praise and grading from their teachers. The Lancaster Tab spoke to STEM students to get a first-hand account of their everyday experiences.

‘I have to constantly work harder than the guys on the course just to be on the same level’

Hannah, a physics student, spoke to The Lancaster Tab about her experience as a woman in STEM. Hannah has only had one female lecturer throughout her degree. The rest of her lectures have been taken by men, and the number of men on her course outweighs women significantly. While she hasn’t experienced any gender disparity yet, she has experienced sexism. Before university started, someone on the physics course claimed that “women bring down the grade average in physics and shouldn’t be allowed to do the subject.” When he was called out on it, he said that it was his opinion, and he was “glad we could have this discussion” unfazed by sharing openly sexist views on the course group chat.

‘I’ve been told that being a woman in a male-dominated subject is easy because you are automatically the favourite’

Lucy is a first year physics, astrophysics and cosmology student. She was discouraged from entering her STEM degree, having repeatedly been told that she “should be a doing a girl subject.” She admitted that there is a constant feeling that the men on her course don’t feel that their female counterparts are on their level. She credits her female physics teacher for pushing her towards physics, as she would not have gone into a STEM degree without the encouragement. Lucy had experiences with the same male student who said “women bring down the average” and are not good enough to be in a science degree. She was equally perplexed by his explanation behind this statement.

Many expressed disappointment at common conception within STEM degrees that women are either inherently inferior or automatically a favourite because of their gender. Many women feel pressure to prove themselves worthy or smart enough to study for a STEM degree.

‘Even my parents have implied I only secured my dream grad scheme role because I’m a woman’

Millie, a fourth year chemical engineering student, spoke of the online misogyny she has experienced regarding her field. Most frequently, she had seen people claim that women in STEM are only successful because they “sleep their way to the top.” This view often appears throughout replies to tweets celebrating individual women in STEM and on job advice forums. Millie secured her dream graduate scheme role after working hard in each stage to get it, but even her parents took the view that she only got it based on her gender, not her effort or achievements.

At Lancaster, women make up less than 20 per cent of the chemical engineering cohort. In Millie’s first year, out of the 150 students, just 10 were women. In the second and third year, as the classes got smaller based on specialisations, it was four women to 25 men for the rest of her undergraduate degree.

‘People never stop learning, and everyone is on their own path. You shouldn’t compare yourself to them’

Amelia, an Earth and environmental science student, highlighted the alternative view as a woman in STEM, saying that she never felt there was a barrier for her degree. There is a feeling of imposter syndrome, but having differing perspectives on environmental issues allows everyone to give their unique opinion.

‘As an Asian woman in STEM, I feel I have mostly the same opportunities as the guys’

Anny, a mathematics student, shared that she had a nurturing environment since the age of 15, even though she was one of only two girls in a near all-male class. She said being an Asian woman in STEM has had positive impacts on her degree, as there is more funding for women STEM than most people realise. However, she hopes there will soon be more female lecturers in the Mathematics department, which would help reduce the gender gap.

‘We are expected to settle down somewhere our partner can find work’

Isabel spoke about sexism in mathematics, where women are still expected to take on care of children and the family instead of furthering their education or career. There are only a handful of female PhD students at Lancaster, with three or four female lecturers on the pure mathematics side.  Isabel said family life is incompatible with a research career, as you have to keep moving every couple of years. This may not seem like an issue, but if the number of females in a mathematics degree compared to those starting PhD programmes, the numbers drop radically. This decreases further up the job ladder. These stories are not unusual but increasingly common. Women in STEM drop out either due to sexist comments or the feeling that they don’t belong.

This International Women’s Day is more important than in previous years. The current online learning platform can isolate women and provide some students with an unregulated platform to share misogynistic views. The theme for International Women’s Day is #ChooseToChallenge. Choose to challenge the men who throw out these views and, instead, push the narrative that women deserve to be in STEM.

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