Personal Reflections: International Women's Day 2021

Disclaimer: The point of view that is presented in this post may not be representative and is provided as an example of how some women are treated in traditionally male-dominated fields. The point of view I represent is my own as a white cis female scientist. Yes, the qualifiers are necessary. The experience I have may be vastly different from a BIPOC cis female scientist versus a white trans male, etc. As a white woman, I recognize there is a level of privilege I experience that others may not. Likewise, I experience stigma, sexism, and systematic issues specifically because I am a woman in STEM. The lens I bring to this conversation reflects my personal experience and may not be consistent with others’ experiences in similar situations.

As many of my colleagues and friends can attest, I absolutely adore all things math and statistics. I love numbers! I love using the scientific method to uncover how people interpret numeric information in order to make informed decisions. I love learning about how people perceive math and statistics. Even more, I love changing opinions about statistics and how useful numbers are in everyday life!

Historically, math, statistics, and most science majors at universities were reserved for men becauseĀ people wrongly believed that women could not handle the logic and reasoning required to advance. (Note: that research was published in 2014!) Despite the incredible work that’s been done to show equal aptitude and success regardless of gender, I’ve personally encountered this belief throughout my career more often than I care to admit.

One particular example comes to mind, from when I was much younger than I am now. I was only a few years out of high school, enrolled in Calculus III at my local community college. I was majoring in mathematics and physics at the time, actively participated on the Math Olympics team, and worked full time to support myself.

The professor I had for my entire calculus series did not like me and made no secret of it. On several occasions during the long evening lectures, I would ask for clarification on how to solve a problem. He would respond by dismissing the entire class for the evening instead of showing us the solution. At the end of the semester, that same professor pulled me aside to say even if I passed the final exam, he would still fail me because I do not belong in STEM. So instead of showing up for the final, I gave up. I dropped out of college entirely and went to work full time in a completely different city.

It took many years to recover from that exposure to male gatekeeping in STEM, and my self-esteem was shattered. I thought maybe he was right; I would never be a scientist. I wasn’t cut out for the really challenging mental work of being a researcher. I would never succeed in a career that required advanced mathematics even though it is a topic I love so much. I internalized so many of the stereotypical statements women hear when they want to pursue a future in these fields.

The lies women start to internalize over a lifetime of being told we are not enough.
The lies women internalize throughout their lives.

Fast forward to 2019, after a lot of self-reflection and the support of an amazing group of friends, colleagues, and mentors: I earned my PhD from an R1 university under the guidance of the most awe-inspiring woman I have ever met. I was part a lab full of amazing women who held zero regard for glass ceilings and relentlessly pushed forward despite many obstacles. These women are my inspiration, and I continue looking up to them every day.

I am now a full-fledged scientist with expertise in numerical reasoning and decision making. I get to do research and make new discoveries about the brain and human cognition. How cool is that?! Experimental design and advanced statistics are my bread and butter for exploring the human brain and why we behave in the ways we do. I publish routinely on reasoningtransitioning to industry, and continue to mentor future scientists through my Friday afternoon coffee chats. I work for a company that values research and hires people from all walks of life. I get to do what I love every single day, what that professor told me I would never be able to do: research, educate, and continue learning.

My story could have gone a very different direction, and for awhile it did. I could have continued listening to the voice of others saying that women do not belong in STEM, let alone any field requiring advanced mathematics. I could have continued internalizing the beliefs that women are not capable of the same logic and rigor needed to advance scientific theory. I could have been one of any number of women with similar experiences who listened to those voices instead of their own.

But that’s not me.

My website is titled “Dare to Challenge the World” because I want to live this ideal every single day, while helping others do the same. Women belong. Full stop. No qualifiers. These outdated lies about what women can and cannot do, and who is intelligent enough or logical enough to be a scientist, are antiquated and have no place in the modern world.

On this International Women’s Day, I call on you to support and praise the women around you. Help them succeed on the path they wish to follow. 

And if they have a PhD or any type of doctorate, call them Doctor. They earned it.

Happy International Women's Day 2021