Michelle Phillips: Support women in STEM

Tuesday, December 5, 2017 - 3:27pm

“Oh my gosh! That looks so complicated! You are so smart; I could never do that.” These are often the responses I get when my friends look at my computer while I’m doing my homework. But, the truth is, my homework really isn’t that complicated. Sure, the lines of code may look intimidating, but if you were to see a male student coding on his computer in the library, would you think he were exceptional? Or would you think he were a genius? No, you wouldn't.

There is an extreme double standard between men and women in the field of technology. When I was three, I wanted to be a pop star, not a computer scientist. Society conditioned me to believe jobs related to engineering and science were only for men. I would have never guessed that I, a woman, would ever walk into lecture halls to study coding languages surrounded by male students, male professors and male Graduate Student Instructors.

I was never the smartest kid in class. I constantly struggle with different concepts I learn, and it takes a lot of brainpower for me to master them. Last year, when I came to the University of Michigan, a senior recommended that I take a computer science class (“You will learn so much! You won’t regret it!”) and to this day, I don’t. I learned more in my first computer science course than I did in any other class I have taken thus far in my academic career.

I worked really hard and ended up being a successful student. Though I didn’t receive an A, the knowledge I gained in that course far exceeds what you will see reflected by my grade. I learned that doing something you actually enjoy allows you to learn from your failures and accept them as part of the process. Studying a subject you are passionate about enables you to accept setbacks because of your determination to do better and benefit because of it. I experienced this firsthand while learning how to code. Pushing myself to do something I never thought I would has allowed me to learn more and work harder than I ever imagined I would when I came to college.

When I first enrolled in this computer science class, I thought I was contributing to changing the stereotype of this male-dominated industry; that I would help change the reputation that only men can be successful in STEM fields. However, I was wrong. Disproving people’s prejudices was and still is harder than I thought it would be. I have faced the harsh reality that you can’t change the minds of thousands of individuals by simply enrolling in a class. They assume things about you, they think you won’t be as successful as your male counterparts and they give you attitude for asking too many questions.

The stigma that surrounds women in STEM fields goes far beyond what female students will experience on the University’s campus. A study from Girls Who Code states that about 74 percent of young girls express interest in STEM fields and computer science. Yet, research shows that women earn only 18 percent of computer science degrees and hold only 11 percent of executive positions in Silicon Valley. I wonder what deterred the rest from pursuing their childhood dreams?

Needless to say, there have been countless instances in which women have faced sexism in the tech industry. Earlier this year, Justin Caldbeck resigned from his venture capital firm, Binary Capital, after six female employees accused him of sexually harassing them. Also in 2017, Susan Fowler made news when she spoke out about the sexism she faced as a female working as a software engineer for Uber. The harsh reality surrounding women in top positions at corporate technology companies discourages young girls from pursuing degrees in those fields and taking jobs at specific companies.

I know I am just as capable as the next person, and I know being a girl does not mean I will accomplish less. In fact, it makes me work harder, so that I can show everyone that just because I was born a specific sex does not mean I will amount to less.

The truth to all of this is that everything is hard until it gets easy. A good friend of mine always tells me this, which I have found to be true: No matter which path you choose, no matter which class you take, you have to put the effort in to actually learn. And once you practice it, it becomes easier. So no, my homework really is not that complicated, and no, I am not a genius.

We should all actively encourage girls to pursue STEM. There are many organizations around and outside of campus that women in technology can join to learn from others and gain opportunities to grow. The more we raise awareness about these issues, the more the gender gap will close and the more women will be able to prosper in male-dominated workplaces such as the tech industry.

Michelle Phillips can be reached at mphi@umich.edu.