“What kind of hurdles have you faced as a woman in STEM? What do you wish people had done differently to support you in your career goals? What kind of role models have you looked up to?” The first few times I heard these questions and their many variations, I was taken aback. Why were people acting as though choosing to study computers was something impressive and groundbreaking?
It took me some time to realize that these people thought I was brave for studying software, in part because building technology feels so alien, a mysterious realm that only stereotypical “smart people” could ever understand. I realized too that some were impressed that I would pick a field that could be very isolating due to the scarcity of other girls. In many of my classes, the girls were outnumbered 14 to one (or more!). Taken with a certain perspective, these two things together could be very daunting.
The thing was, these hadn’t occurred to me before other people pointed them out. Computers were just a puzzle to figure out, and I’ve always liked puzzles. I’m actually not intrinsically tech-savvy: any skills I have come from hours of hard work and stubbornness. I can be very stubborn. I took my first computer class on a dare, and had decided I would not let the programs beat me, no matter how many late nights and tears it took. Well, it took many late nights and tears, but I came out the winner.
As for the extreme ratio of men to women…well, I’m not “one of the guys,” but I’m one of the team. And I’m happy with that. We have good conversations talking about code and commiserating about bugs (and sometimes branch out to talk about day-to-day life). And when I get supersaturated by tech talk, I go to my friends outside of work to enjoy the sunshine (computer labs are notoriously indoors), or discuss the latest book I’ve read (assuming I had time for reading), or just talk about the weather (meteorology is fascinating).
I was lucky. I was taught that no particular field should be characterized by a mindset where one person or group “can” and the other “can’t.” The men and women that influenced me most were those who led me to think that I should learn about and succeed wherever I could find excitement and the drive to work hard – whether computers, history, psychology, or any of thousands of other things. Those people were critical in shaping how I saw myself in the world. Surrounded by supportive role models at home and at school, I never noticed when I was leaping hurdles.
A sincere congratulations to Brooke and her husband on their newborn baby as well! Thanks for sharing your experience about being a woman in STEM, Brooke. If you’d like to learn more about Brooke’s book, Elements of Evil, you can find it here.