In My Shoes: A Queer Woman In STEM

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Words || Tara Dunch

When I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut. I thought space was super cool and who wouldn’t want to see it in person. Suffice to say, I was pretty upset when I heard on the radio on my way home from school one day that NASA was going to be sending any more astronauts to space. In that moment, I turned to my mum and told her that if I couldn’t be an astronaut, then I’d just have to study astrophysics instead. Now, I was only twelve at the time and I certainly didn’t know what astrophysics was, but here I am nearly a decade later studying a double degree in Mechanical Engineering and Astrophysics, and for the most part I love it. That being said, and a queer woman studying in male dominated fields, sometimes it’s hard.

My high school was overall very liberal in pretty much all areas, and because of this, while the gender split in most of my math and science subjects wasn’t quite 50/50, for the most part there were lots of women in my courses, and I hadn’t had to quite face how intimidating it can be to be surrounded by men. I will never forget the feeling of walking into my first proper Engineering lecture at the end of my first year. I was excited to start the unit, and get onto studying in my chosen field. But as the lecture hall filled up, the environment felt more and more oppressive. By the time the room was filled, there would have been at least 150 people in there, and of them, there were only four other women. Now, none of the young men in the room did anything wrong, I’m not even sure that most of them would have realised just how uneven the gender split in that room was, but every man that entered that room made it a little harder for me to breathe.

In my next year, one of my courses was comprised entirely of a group project. Of my group of seven, I was the only girl in the group. By this point, I didn’t find that particularly surprising, and worked to ensure my voice was heard. To be fair, the boys in the group that were actually helpful to the project listened to me when I voiced my opinion and concerns. The boys who were less helpful to the project, less so. One of the things that starts to happen when people doubt your ability is that you start to doubt your own ability. The men in my course are imbued with confidence. Even when they have no idea what the answer is, they’re more than happy to yell it out. The women I know, either can’t or won’t do that. People notice when women are wrong, but congratulate men for trying.

In another unit, the second half of the semester was spent in pairs conducting an experiment, writing code to analyse the data we gathered and writing a report on it. The best word to describe my partner for this project was nice. He was nice and he tried to make my life easier by taking on the majority of the burden of the project. The only problem is that I didn’t need him to. I was more than capable of doing my section of the project, but he was always willing to do it for me. The first time I met him face to face to talk about the project he said I looked tired. He was right. I was tired, I do a lot both within my degree and outside of it. I’m always tired. I just hadn’t bothered to cover it with makeup that day. There are plenty of men in that course who are perpetually tired, and always look it, but that not your first impression of them. Ultimately, my partner was nice and trying to help me, he just never bothered to ask if I needed his help. He was nice, but he still created a version of me in his head that was inferior to who I am, and that’s what he based his interactions with me on.

Now, being a women isn’t something I could hide even I had wanted to. I’ve spent years trying to find a balance between not being a version of femininity that’s merely a product of the male gaze and not being “one of the boys”. I want to be a woman, and enjoy it, not hiding my femininity to fit into my cohort, but I also don’t want to just be there version of an idealised women. At the end of the day, I like makeup and you’ll almost never see me without lipstick on, but I will continue to struggle with trying to me for me, rather than trying to prove something to men who won’t understand.

Things get even more interesting, because I am a bisexual woman, which makes it even harder to fit into a cohort that is predominately straight men. The type of men who call computers or wires gay when they don’t work the way they want them to. I know this because I’ve been there when they do it. The first time was in a nine am tutorial on a Friday near the end of semester, and I was already exhausted when I heard my friend calling his computer gay. In that moment I had a choice to make. I could call him up on it, or I could stay in the closet. I told him the only gay thing in the room was me. The next time it happened, it was a different guy. I called him up, but didn’t come out. He responded that he liked being “politically incorrect”. I said I was gay. I’ll never forget the look of shock and confusion on both their faces. It hadn’t occurred to either that I could be anything other than straight. It simply hadn’t crossed their minds.

At the end of my second year, I seriously considered dropping out. I could deal with the courses and the content, but I couldn’t see myself spending the rest of my life with these people, fighting to be accepted as who I am. I’ve made some great friends, particularity in the Astrophysics degree, but finding people who I can remotely relate to in the Mechanical Engineering will always be hard. At this point, I’m completing the degree because I refuse to be pushed out of a degree that I enjoy. And the thing is, I don’t believe anyone is trying to push me out or make me feel unwelcome deliberately. But there is so much unconscious bias that it happens anyway, and I wouldn’t blame anyone who couldn’t take it. It’s hard, but an important way to force change is to have diverse people in the room, calling people out on their bullshit.