A chill breeze makes me shiver as I sit on a cold metal bench in front of my high school. At four thirty in the morning, that’s about as much as I expected. I’m waiting to leave with the rest of my team for the regional Science Bowl competition. A van pulls up, and I recognize our team captain and his dad, our adult supervisor for the day. I hurriedly get in the back seat, anxious to get out of the cold of the morning air. He asks me about the driver’s education course I had taken that past summer. I answer, happy to give some advice. About fifteen minutes later, the entire team is assembled: me and three teenage boys. I pull out a textbook, and try to get some last minute studying in, though my brain still hasn’t fully woken up yet. While reading, I hear the adult supervisor getting to know the other boys on the team. He asks them about their courses in science and math. I think it’s a little odd I wasn’t asked any of these things, but brush it off and keep reading.
Finally, as the sun rises, we reach the venue for the competition. Excited for our first Science Bowl competition as a team, we dive head first into the craziness of the day. In between matches, we try to pass the time and chat. In these chats, it becomes more and more apparent to me that I fit in as an accessory to the team, not an integral part. The team captain refers to us as “the boys,” I’m met with blank stares as I make a brief comment about the nature of the autonomy of female bodies, and I get cut off when I try to speak in conversation.
By the time we get back to the high school, I’m glad to be back in my car, alone and exhausted. As I drive home, I think about the events of the day, and turn them over in my head. Was I being too sensitive and reading too much into things, or was there an actual culture problem? I think back to the competition, and realize that at most, I saw two girls on each team of four or five, and that only one girl won an award. What should have been an exciting day filled with new experiences and happy times as a team was overshadowed by small actions that built into an unenjoyable experience. I talked with my family about it, and they agreed: something needed to change.
So, at the next science club meeting, although I was nervous, I brought these experiences up with my male teammates. I prefaced all of this by emphasizing the fact that unintended actions can still have consequences. They had absolutely no idea that they had been contributing to this boys culture, and were surprised and apologetic when I brought it up. The team captain began to make changes to the structure of the team to make it more inclusive, committing to being more conscious with speech, and actively recruiting more women for the team. I’m very lucky to be a part of a team that can take criticism and learn from it.
I know that my experience was far from unique. Women struggle every day with their place in male-dominated spaces. I think it is very important to make sure that we are not suffering in silence. In order to make structural change a reality in STEM fields, we need to speak out and be loud. So, tell your peers when they do something to make you uncomfortable, and let the captain of your science club know what could be done to improve the environment for women. As a woman in STEM, you are important, you are valued, and you have thoughts, wishes, desires, and experiences that deserve to be shared.