The struggles of women in male-dominated classes

There’s an elephant in the room, and it’s time we discuss it

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Mehroz Kapadia / Daily Collegian

By Lily Fitzgerald, Collegian Contributor

I think we need to talk about the elephant in the room––the male one that stampedes through most STEM classes.

Many majors tend to have a large gender gap in them, with women gravitating towards majors like nursing or education, while men lean towards majors like economics or engineering. Both men and women have a difficult time feeling like they belong when they enter a major dominated by the opposite gender, but sexism and isolation exacerbate these feelings for women. Male-dominated classrooms are problematic for any woman hoping to pave her way in a traditionally non-female career path.

From a young age, societal norms influence what career path boys and girls will choose, whether they like it or not. While we are being taught blue is a “boy color” and pink is a “girl color,” we are also taught girls “should be caring” and boys “should be tough”––something that stays with us.

When a girl is taught to nurture and listen, she’s drawn more to fields that fit that image, such as a teacher or a nurse. On the other hand, boys are taught to be curious and to lead, perfect for careers in STEM or politics. There’s a reasoning behind it, but are there real issues with careers being female or male centered?

Yes, yes there is. Female dominated careers tend to have lower incomes, with Massachusetts teachers earning on average $64,867 a year. If not lesser paid, then women take on less authoritative roles in their careers. But what happens if a young girl ignores what she’s taught at a young age and decides to become an engineer or CEO? They’re met with an unsupportive environment.

Many women will agree walking into a lecture or discussion and seeing that it’s nearly all men is daunting because they know how they are going to be treated in there. For the most part they will be ignored. My friend majoring in engineering recounted that her professor tends to ignore when she raises her hand, as if they don’t think she has the answer.

Beyond professors, as the “token girl” in class, it can feel hard to connect with male peers. Being ignored by classmates leaves you with no one to turn to if you’re not understanding a concept or sitting separately from the rest of class. Even if there are a good sum of girls it feels like a class divided––like us against them–– when really, we should be working together.

If I had to pick, the worst aspect of a male-dominated class is the aggression. It’s not unheard of for sexist remarks to flitter around the classroom when a woman shares a different opinion. My economics class is male-dominated, and I keep hearing guys around me use terms like “social justice warrior” among other insults targeted towards women. The same way they treat their classmates will be the same way they treat their co-workers. But it isn’t right.  It’s uncomfortable to hear and makes you afraid to speak your mind.

Many girls choose to quit their major for a more gender-equal field that may treat them better. This allows these other majors and career paths to remain male-centric.

A classroom should be a welcoming space for everyone and it’s not hard to achieve. Professors and teaching assistants need to listen and believe in women more, especially when calling on them in class. Even if they aren’t involved, male classmates should say something when they notice a girl getting targeted or harassed, even if it is in support of their opinion or a “knock it off.”

And most of all, connect with us. Nothing makes a person feel safer than when they know they have someone in their corner, and that is key when you’re an outnumbered girl. When you see that male elephant charging, think of your female peers and stop it in its tracks.

Lily Fitzgerald can be reached at [email protected].