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The Huntington News

The independent student newspaper of Northeastern University

The Huntington News

The independent student newspaper of Northeastern University

The Huntington News



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‘There’s a beauty in the resilience of being a woman in STEM’: How Northeastern women STEM majors persevere in a male-dominated field

Emma Liu

Historically, the number of students who apply and are admitted to Northeastern University has been relatively equal across genders. In fact, women tend to be slightly overrepresented in the student body, as has been the case for the 2023-24 academic year. 

Yet, science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, majors continue to be male-dominated nationwide, including at Northeastern. As the visualizations show, more males than females have been awarded STEM degrees/certificates from 2021 to 2022 across schools in the United States, both by race and overall. 

Despite a lack of published statistics from the university about how many STEM degrees are awarded to women in comparison to men, students in the discipline say they still find themselves in male-dominated classes. 

“I would say all my [computer science] classes have been pretty male-dominated … it’s kinda intimidating in the sense that most of the people who are able to answer professor’s questions or tell me the homework is easy are men,” said Emily Xu, a third-year computer science and behavioral neuroscience combined major.

Xu’s sentiments are shared among her other female peers as well. 

“Most of them didn’t come from a [computer science] background but wanted to try it out and it’s been really rough for them,” Xu said.

However, third-year data science and psychology combined major Lesrene Browne is optimistic about the ongoing changes in the STEM field’s accommodation of women. 

“There’s a lot more women in technical roles and it’s less taboo, or maybe disdained,” Browne said, mentioning her participation in programs throughout her formative years that encouraged women to go into STEM fields. “There’s a bigger community and girls are encouraged to join that community from a young age. I was a part of that revolution … which partially led me to be a [data science] and psychology major now.”

At Northeastern, the number of women admitted to the College of Engineering in fall 2022 exceeded that of men for the first time ever. Furthermore, the university has taken its own steps to encourage a more equal gender distribution in the field. The university founded the Women in Engineering Program to provide women with resources to help them feel more confident and successful. National Greek organizations such as Omega Phi Beta, which has a chapter at Northeastern, aim to support women, especially those of color, facing educational, economic, social and political marginalization. 

Still, Browne admits to feeling tension in her classes due to her gender. 

“I am not naive,” Browne said. “When someone questions my ability or competency after I express interest in traditionally ‘girly’ things, or when I feel boxed out during a group discussion because the guys are speaking, or when I can’t quite tell if my classmate actually wants my help with homework or is just hitting on me, I can still feel the burden of being in this field and a woman.”

Joan Williams, a distinguished professor of law at the University of California College of the Law, San Francisco, implemented a study involving in-depth interviews with 60 female scientists and surveys from 557 female scientists to better understand this phenomenon. 

Williams’ study found that many women reported having to prove themselves constantly. Even when they did, people discredited their stress while remaining skeptical about their expertise.

Third-year cell and molecular biology major Sonia Kulkarni said this phenomenon makes “being a woman in STEM a somewhat challenging experience.” 

“It can be discouraging when you’re undermined or second-guessed through no fault of your own,” she said. Despite this, she finds strength in being able to empathize with others about her negative experiences. “When you are able to find a community or group of people that have had similar experiences and are supportive, it is great.”

Fourth-year chemical engineering major Emma Lavoie feels this pressure particularly “during meetings with or led by men,” she said. 

“I can feel pressured to contribute unique ideas or ask good questions, whereas I see that some male peers don’t feel similar pressures and feel comfortable not contributing any ideas to a meeting,” Lavoie said.

Browne said these struggles impede her from reaching out for help. 

“Right now I am one of only two Black women in my [Algorithms] class and I think I want to drop out … but I’m scared to because what if people in the class or [the] professor thinks, even unconsciously, that I and people like me aren’t smart enough to do this work,” Browne said. “It seems like a silly thing to think about until you actually encounter people who think like that.”

Browne also said she believes that despite women feeling that they need to act “masculine” for their talents to be acknowledged, they often are also expected to be feminine. Thus, they face the constant pressure of ensuring they act feminine enough to be liked, but masculine enough for people to acknowledge their aptitude.

Lavoie acknowledged the struggle to balance her expressions to appeal to different audiences, especially in work settings. 

“If you smile and laugh too much, you can be seen as ditzy, but if you don’t smile enough, you’re seen as cold,” she said.

Kulkarni has faced similar challenges when working in lab settings.

 “I have found it difficult to have to balance between being likable and agreeable and being aggressive in sharing my thoughts or opinions,” she said. “It can be difficult when your ideas are sidelined or overlooked because male colleagues doubt your ideas and you’re not able to disagree because otherwise you’ll be deemed ‘too emotional.’”

Starting a family can also add difficulties. Williams said that people become even more dubious of the diligence and commitment of professional women if they bear children. This societal bias dampens mothers’ work experience.

Women are also often pitted against each other in their work environments, especially when they face discrimination early in their careers. Williams’ survey reports outline that around 20% of the respondents felt they were “competing with [their] female colleagues for the ‘woman’s spot.’” The accumulated aggravation that comes from constant discrimination early in life may perpetuate a cycle of women ensuring other women in younger generations experience the same feelings of distress.

Lavoie, however, disagreed with Williams’ results in that regard. 

“I don’t feel the need to compete with other women, especially because I know they feel the same pressures as it is,” she said. “It’s much better to uplift each other as women in STEM.”

Williams’ findings also showed that 42% of Black women and 38% of Latina women reported feeling that their co-workers doubted their ability to succeed in their work when trying to bond with them. 

Browne agreed, saying that she thinks about how her identity affects how others think of her. “I definitely feel that the intersection between being a woman and Black plays a huge role in how I’m perceived and I’m always hyper-aware of that,” she said.

Acknowledging the challenges of those sharing her identity in STEM, she wants to prove that Black women can flourish in the field too. “I detest being thought of as incompetent, especially because I know I may be the only representation of a Black woman people this field will encounter for a while,” Browne said.

About the Contributor
Emma Liu
Emma Liu, Deputy Design Editor
Emma Liu is a second-year behavioral neuroscience and design major. She is currently working as the deputy design editor for The News. Originally from Philadelphia, Emma loves to collect sonny angels, volunteer at local orgs and find good food in her free time.
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