As part of International Women's Day 2022, MIT students and RGC visiting teachers Suki Zhang and Lilly Papalia explore this year's theme - break the bias. 

Lilly's story:

Growing up, I always knew I wanted to do something in the STEM field. From an early age, it was clear I was way more interested in math and science than the other subjects. My father was a mechanical engineer, but it wasn’t until I started working on cars with him my Freshman year of high school that I really got interested in engineering. I really enjoyed learning how the car worked, and actually doing some hands-on learning. This was my first hand-on learning experience outside of school, and led to many future projects in the field. 

As I got to my later years of high school, I had more choice in the classes I was taking. I filled my schedule with all the STEM classes offered, but it was until my advanced computer programming class my Senior year that I started to notice the gender bias. I was the only female in the class, and even though the other students were kind to me, I felt a bit out of place. I didn’t let gender bias bother me, and stayed in the class because I was passionate about the topic. 

Going into college, I thought I would study computer science because I really enjoyed the problem solving aspect of it. But, part of me wanted to prove that women can succeed in the field, after having a lack of females in computing at my high school. After my Freshman year, I switched to mechanical engineering, another male dominated field, because I wanted to build things versus coding on a computer. 

At MIT, the gender bias is almost non-existent. While this is great, this caused a shock when I went to my first internship. I worked on a team with two other interns, both males, and the larger team we worked under at the company only had one female out of about twenty. I interned for a large company that advertises diversity, and even has a female CEO. I was shocked at the lack of women in the department. The singular female was my manager for the summer, and she did not let gender bias affect her. She was highly respected in her team, and made many important decisions for the team. She was such an inspiration to me, and while she continued to thrive in this male dominated team, she shouldn’t have to. While the gender gap is improving in industry, there is a lot of work to be done. But, women should not be discouraged from STEM because of this gap.

My advice for young girls is to try to not let gender bias affect you, and choose classes and projects that actually interest you. While it may be a little uncomfortable to be in a room full of men, you should not let that take you away from pursuing something you are passionate about. Keep pushing through even when you feel out of place, and one day you can help inspire young girls to pursue STEM as well.

Suki's story:

I spent half my life in China, where the grooves of gender bias are etched much deeper into society than in the United States. Since young, I’ve been taught that it’s the boys who have to study hard and make a career in the future, and that girls only have to worry about being good wives and mothers. Fortunately, my family believed in the value of education, and they pushed me to study hard and be the best I can be. Just having the reassurance from my family was very inspiring in my formative years. Even in Chinese schools, where kids are especially competitive, I never felt the weight of the gender bias against me: I always performed well, and as a result, never felt insecure when speaking up in class and assuming leadership positions. When I came back to the United States, the trend continued, and I was never the quietest in the room-- in fact, I was often the one speaking up the most in class and during group activities. 

I lived with this mindset that as long as I was proving myself to be competent, then people won’t shut me down. It was only when I got to MIT did I realize just how toxic and tiring this mindset can be. I was suddenly thrown into an environment where I was a tiny krill in a big fish pond; no matter how well I do, there is always someone in the class who seems to know more than me. I suddenly became reserved again, and I never spoke up unless I was sure I won’t look like a fool if I do. Especially in some classes where there were barely any girls, I was practically non-existent. What happened to my confidence and my voice? In hindsight, I knew I was on par with the others in the room, but it was hard to believe in myself in the moment. 

And as I reflect on my approach to life: why is it that I felt the compulsion to prove my competency just to feel like I deserved to be listened to? It’s often very intimidating being the only female in the room, and even more intimidating to be speaking up as the only female in the room. There is this urge to have to prove to others that I am just as smart and competent, and that I belong. But why is it that girls have to go into any room and feel the need to justify their presence? In fact, why do so many girls like me feel the need to overcompensate just for the opportunity to exist in the space? 

It’s good for young girls to understand the value of working hard, but it’s never good for young girls to work hard for the sake of proving their worth. My advice: do not ever feel the need to prove yourself to anyone. You deserve your opportunities, and you deserve to speak up just as much as any other person regardless of gender. There is no reason for any young girls to feel like they need to prove themselves-- just be the best that you can be, and make sure you know that you own every space you’re in.

Blog: MIT students share their experiences of gender bias in STEM for IWD