Five women on being in a male-dominated major

How sexism impacts learning at UMass

Kenyon+Cox+%7C+Wikimedia+Commons

Kenyon Cox | Wikimedia Commons

By Laleh Panahi, Collegian Contributor

Zeina Zahoori, freshman | Computer Science

How has your experience been in CS so far?

It’s been challenging, but it’s also fun to problem solve, and I enjoy collaborating with peers. [Computer science] is definitely project based, and we develop programs in groups. There’s only one or two exams per semester. When witnessing so many negative and sexist comments though, it’s difficult to fully process what I’m learning or find fulfillment.

What is the dynamic like between you and other women in your major?

I find this to be an interesting question because the dynamic can be complicated. We try to support and uplift each other, because being a woman in STEM is a whole movement in itself, and there’s so few of us. But there’s also a sense of competition. When you’re a woman, you have to work harder to be taken seriously… Because of this, women get pitted against each other. But at the end of the day, we’re all experiencing and going through the same struggles.

Do you feel as if you have the ability to express your opinion and ask questions freely, or do you ever feel overshadowed by your male peers?

With professors, I can express myself freely. But with peers, it depends – I have had male peers who put me down or felt that they were intellectually superior to me. It’s kind of fifty-fifty.

Have you overheard any sexist comments?

I have definitely overheard sexist comments. Men in my classes have said that women ask dumb or stupid questions, which is disrespectful since no question is stupid and we’re all just trying to learn. They sometimes act arrogant and put on airs that they’re smarter. My two male friends are in CS and if we’re working on a project together, I sometimes feel as if my idea is overlooked. Even if they eventually realize that I’m right, they don’t really give me credit for my ideas or acknowledge my intelligence. I don’t think they have ill intentions, but I think men in my classes sometimes feel the need to validate their intelligence, even if that means discrediting my own.

Did you have any expectations going into CS as a woman?

In high school, I was the only girl in my CS class, so I didn’t get to interact with a lot of other women. I was expecting some backlash and some sexism going into college, but I didn’t think it would be this bad, since I thought college students would be more aware and educated. I was also not expecting the toxicity and sense of competition between women.

How do you think UMass can improve women’s experiences going forward?

There needs to be more support for women in STEM specifically. [The College of Information and Computer Sciences] should encourage women to band together and discuss these topics, so we can unite over our experiences instead of only competing with each other. I think there needs to be more awareness and conversations regarding sexism in CS. My male peers need to realize that their behavior is unacceptable and that all students should be treated respectfully. It seems obvious, but I do not think that’s emphasized or talked about enough.

How does the sexism you experience affect your attitude towards the field?

The sexism can be disheartening. I sometimes wonder if the boys are right. CS isn’t an easy subject as is, so I can sometimes get discouraged. But it’s also motivating to have people to prove wrong.

 

Gianna Verna, freshman | Sports Management

How has your experience been in Sports Management so far?

It’s been pretty good so far. I like the community that comes with sports management, and it feels really close knit. I’ve made a lot of friends in the same major as me. We also do lots of projects and group work, so there’s plenty of opportunities to interact with people.

What is the dynamic like between you and other women in your major?

Since it’s so male dominated, other girls in the major are friendly and open to building connections. In my discussion group, there were only 3 girls out of 25 total people, so the two other girls and I kind of stuck together and advocated for each other. We also have a bond since we’re interested in the same subject.

Do you feel as if you have the ability to express your opinion and ask questions freely, or do you ever feel overshadowed by your male classmates?

I initially felt intimidated. My discussion group this semester, for example, is all guys. It’s pretty intense, because the guys come into class with all this detailed sports talk. You want to express yourself and speak confidently, but you also don’t want to be wrong. Over time, I realized my classmates are receptive and open to hearing what I have to say. It’s definitely taken confidence for me to do that. I tried to take it step by step, and after a while I realized it wasn’t so bad.

Have you overheard any sexist comments?

Absolutely. The discussion surrounding women’s sports is the biggest point of controversy, and it’s always been a topic of debate within our classes. For example, we were talking about March Madness and the inequality in coverage between the men and women’s teams. I heard comments like, “no shit women get less coverage, the men’s teams are better.” They overlook women’s sports in general and are pretty dismissive of it. They don’t recognize its importance, and they believe that athletically women can’t compete at the same level as men.

Did you have any expectations going into sports management as a woman?

I definitely had some fear, since I know so many men do sports management as a major. Those guys are usually athletic and are very outspoken. But once I took more classes, I realized that there were all kinds of people interested in the subject.

How do you think UMass can improve women’s experiences going forward?

I will say that my professors have been really vigilant about raising awareness towards the inequity between men and women’s sports. I’m in a sociology of sports class, and my professor, Nicole Melton, addresses these issues really tactfully. The problem kind of lies within the perspectives my male classmates grew up with, and I can recognize UMass is trying to make an effort to change this.

How does the sexism you’ve experienced affected your attitude towards the field?

It definitely gets discouraging and unmotivating. This past Monday, I came back from a lecture about gender inequality feeling so frustrated. My male classmates’ sexist comments made me so upset, and I almost wanted to block it out. After reflecting on it, I realized that I can contribute to changing the dynamic and view of women’s sports in our society. The discouragement almost turns into motivation.

 

Katie Robertson, freshman |Recently switched majors from Physics to Philosophy 

How has your experience been in philosophy so far?

I’m pleasantly surprised that it’s been going really well. It’s been more welcoming than I initially thought. I love philosophy, but going into it, I was nervous that my classmates would mostly be pretentious white guys talking over women. There’s some people who definitely live up to that stereotype, but I’ve also met some really cool people.

What is the dynamic like between you and other women in your major?

There’s a good amount of girls actually – the ratio of women to men is maybe four to six. It can sometimes be competitive though. Guys act as if they have more power and authority, and because of that, girls have to fight [to be] heard. In spite of that, we all recognize we’re in the same situation. In contrast though, I was in physics last semester, where only 10 percent of the class was women, and the dynamic between us felt more healthy and collaborative. We were primarily focused on learning the material together. In philosophy, it’s more conceptual and competitive.

Do you feel as if you have the ability to express your opinion and ask questions freely, or do you ever feel overshadowed by your male classmates?

It can definitely be intimidating, but I still try to ask questions and collaborate with peers. It’s annoying – I’ve definitely noticed that some guys will try to disprove a woman’s point every time she speaks, even if the topic we’re talking about doesn’t pertain to them. My professor, Julia Jorati, is amazing though, and she’s really welcoming to new ideas. I’ve heard of other girls in philosophy having male professors where they don’t really feel heard, but overall my experience has been positive. I’m also in the philosophy club, and we all get to present our own ideas. Through that, there’s a lot of opportunities to express your perspectives.

Have you overheard any sexist comments?

I haven’t heard direct comments, but as I mentioned previously, a lot of guys will try to outsmart women, even our professor. A couple of them always try to correct her or argue with her. I think that if our professor were male, the dynamic would definitely be different.

Did you have any expectations going into your major as a woman?

Going into philosophy, I was nervous that guys would be mansplaining everything and that it would be a toxic environment. I was nervous that I’d have a hard time finding my way into it and connecting with the material, but it’s been better than I thought it would be.

How do you think UMass can improve women’s experiences going forward?

I’m not entirely sure yet. In my previous major, physics, I really liked that there was a society for women in that field. There would be a lot of inspiring lectures and opportunities to talk and meet other women in physics. I think it would be helpful to have a club like that for women in philosophy, or to have more female guest speakers. We have guest speakers during lectures, but they’re usually men. It would be motivating to hear from female philosophers, and it would be reassuring to know that women can find…success in philosophy. It would be beneficial to have more women to look up to.

How does the sexism you’ve experienced affected your attitude towards the field?

Being a woman in a male dominated field is motivating. I know I have to work harder, and I want to succeed and persevere. It’s been mostly positive, and I haven’t been discouraged often.

 

Lily Harris-Hendry, sophomore | Political Science

How has your experience been in political science so far?

To be honest, I picked [political science] as a major on a whim, but it’s been working out and I’m learning about what I’m passionate about. Most of our work is paper based, a few quizzes and lots of readings. I don’t really collaborate with peers as much. We have smaller discussion groups though, where most of my classmate interactions come from.

What is the dynamic like between you and other women in your major?

The dynamic is pretty good, and the girls are very friendly. I have a few friends and coworkers in my classes, and everyone is really warm and welcoming. Girls often initiate conversations and are willing to be social. We have group chats and sit together in class. A lot of the [teaching assistant]s are also women, and I think it’s important to have women facilitate discussions surrounding politics.

Do you feel as if you have the ability to express your opinion and ask questions freely, or do you ever feel overshadowed by your male classmates?

Relatively. I feel like poli sci is a lot different from STEM, since it’s a lot more opinion based. I am still learning to develop my own opinion and defend it assertively. I feel like I’m more hesitant to speak because I don’t want my perspective to be questioned. It is really typical for people to disagree with each other. In STEM, you’re either right or not, but in poli sci you really have to build a strong argument and defend your opinion.

Have you overheard any sexist comments?

Not really, but I feel like general attitudes and opinions are a bit sexist. The boys are much more willing to speak, even if it’s on a topic they’re unfamiliar with. Girls kind of recognize when the material is new and take a step back to listen to our professor and take the time to understand any historical background. The men in my class seem to jump to opinions on everything and assume that others in our class want to hear them, even if these opinions stem from things they’re unfamiliar with. In my public policy class we had to write memos and the men seemed to be really eager to speak on women’s issues, almost dominating the conversation.

Did you have any expectations going into your major as a woman?

Compared to my high school experiences, I have found that in college there is less variation of opinions. Most people in my class are radical and share similar opinions. I was surprised that a lot of men had liberal values, but it appears they are overconfident in their knowledge, which leads some of them to come off as a bit too self-assured and almost performative in their beliefs.

How do you think UMass can improve women’s experiences going forward?

There are limited opportunities for internships and careers, and I think more of these opportunities should try to appeal more to women. I feel like SBS should [reach out] to places that specifically support women and focus more on social justice issues. I would appreciate an opportunity to make change at the local level. Panels and events with women speakers would be helpful in creating spaces that empower women. We also should be teaching men in male dominated fields how to be supportive allies, holding them accountable for discrimination of any kind. Women not being included in politics is a loss for everyone, and it shouldn’t be only women’s responsibility to have uncomfortable conversations regarding sexism in the field.

How does the sexism you’ve experienced affected your attitude towards the field?

It frustrates me that even in higher education, no matter what career I go into, I’ll have to deal with overconfident men. Despite this, it drives me to be part of a generation that empowers and uplifts women.

 

Kate Moody, freshman | Economics

How has your experience been in studying economics so far?

I typically do group work in class and do exam work individually. When working with male classmates, I find that I end up taking the initiative, organizing our project and explaining to them what we’re supposed to be doing.

What is the dynamic like between you and other women in your major?

The dynamic is pretty good. I find many of us feel stressed and like we have to prove ourselves to our parents or loved ones; because we’re women we have additional pressure placed on us.

 Do you feel as if you have the ability to express your opinion and ask questions freely, or do you ever feel overshadowed by your male classmates?

I don’t mind speaking up and engaging in class, but I sometimes wonder if my male classmates perceive me as less intelligent for asking a clarifying question.

Have you overheard any sexist comments?

I’ve witnessed it a few times and these comments are usually related to my appearance. They make inappropriate comments about my body, make cat calls and flirt.

Did you have any expectations going into your major as a woman?

It was less male dominated than I expected. At points where I felt behind in class, I still felt welcomed and supported.

How do you think UMass can improve women’s experiences going forward?

I think that the opportunities men and women have to succeed in econ are fairly equal. I think most of the issues come within the immaturity of the boys in class, rather than the school itself.

How does the sexism you’ve experienced affected your attitude towards the field?

I find it motivating. It gives me a burning desire to outshine my male counterparts.

 

Laleh Panahi can be reached at [email protected]