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17th October 2016

A response to ‘Dear fresher females studying STEM’

It is no longer a question of whether women are underrepresented in science—it is a fact. So why are we still having to defend ourselves?

I recently had the misfortune of being sent a Mancunion article entitled ‘Dear fresher females studying STEM’ by the seemingly delightful Elrica Degirmen. As a woman in science I was initially intrigued. In such a male-dominated field, it is always enjoyable to read about the experience of fellow females studying a STEM subject. I cannot say this optimistic outlook stayed around for long.

In spectacular fashion, I was already offended by the end of the first paragraph with what has to be my favourite quote of the article. Quite possibly resembling a soundbite from Donald Trump’s now infamous 2005 tape, she states that just because you are a woman in science, it “does not make you special, princess.”

Obviously this writer has never come across the phrase: ‘If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.’ I suggest she implement this immediately.

Now, despite her claims that “there is no discrimination in science”, as an individual with a science background I prefer to find evidence to back up my opinions. According to Women in Science and Engineering, only 12.8 per cent of the STEM workforce are female. Also, in 2013, the Higher Education and Skills Agency findings showed that science undergraduate courses were 52 per cent male and 40 per cent female, with the remaining eight per cent non-binary students. For postgraduate science courses, this gap only widens further.

Truthfully, you could argue that these figures are not evidence against the supposed “myth” that is gender discrimination in science. However, these things are not usually defined by numbers, but by experiences. When I first read this article an incident in my past sprang to mind instantly.

Over the summer, between academic semesters, I work in a restaurant back home. One night, I was speaking to a couple about my future plans. I mentioned my desire to do a postgraduate degree (which I am currently doing) and move to London after I graduate. The man, who had stated he worked in the pharmaceutical industry, then said: “But when will you find the time to start a family?”

For a moment, I almost felt like I had transported back in time to the 19th century or prior. It was a question that would have had Emmeline Pankhurst staging a protest, and therefore I felt that it did not warrant an answer. If my silence had not told him enough, he continued to say, “maybe you should just become a teacher instead.”

It is not the suggestion of becoming a teacher that offends me. I think it is a great career path that I would have considered if I had the necessary patience with children. However, it is the idea that, as a woman, I only have a certain amount of choices available to me. Therefore, if people like this still exist in the world then yes, I do think that as a woman in science I am “tackling the ‘patriarchy’”.

Beyond the obvious offensive nature of the aforementioned article, I have to comment on the nice dollop of ignorance the writer has shown. Just because you have not personally experienced something, does not mean it does not happen. For example, the horror that is police brutality against African-Americans; it has not happened to me, but I know it does to other people. Hurricane Matthew, that has devastatingly killed thousands of people across the Caribbean; I was not there. It still happened. My housemate found a fiver on the bus the other day—again, I unfortunately was not there for this joyous occasion, but I still believe that it happened.

We do, surprisingly, agree on one thing: “Diversity comes from your interests, your personality, and the parts of you that make you an individual.” Where we differ is that I consider science to be a part of that. I would like to address the suggestion that you should “never define yourself as a female studying science throughout your university career.” My rebuttal? A simple ‘why not?’

Studying science is one of my interests and part of my personality. It is what got me the position of Science and Technology Editor at The Mancunion, it is what drives me towards my chosen career, and most importantly it influences my personality. I’m not sure my family and friends would look at me the same if I did not come out with ‘boring’ facts about microbacteria or retinal ganglion cells.

Through the blur of emotions, that I was no doubt experiencing due to the fact that I am an unstable woman, I saw the words, “You should feel no sense of pride for doing so, because you have not actually achieved anything yet”; referring, of course, to getting into university. Girl-power at its finest right there ladies and gentlemen. At this moment, I start to notice the slightly self-deprecating nature of this article. For if this contributor is speaking in this oppressive manner to all women, surely this includes herself?

This embittered writer, whose career I feel would flourish at a top-notch media outlet such as The Sun, has written extensively about the absence of demeaning attitudes towards women in science, and has consequently taken on that tone herself, therefore proving the existence of said attitude. Well played.

I could not disagree more that “the reality is that most people could not care less that you are a woman studying STEM”. Well I care that I am a woman in science, and so does my mum, and those are the only opinions that matter to me really. I also have the support of L’Oréal, Nature Publications, many higher education institutions, and most importantly, all of the female editors of The Mancunion. But what do experts know anyway?

Maybe you should call up disgraced Nobel Laureate, Sir Tim Hunt, and share your opinions—or as you so poetically put, “claptrap”—with him.

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