Earlier this year, the University of Toronto celebrated a record high for female first-year enrolment: a whopping 30.6% . Yes, less than one-third is a triumph when you look at Canada’s reported percentage of females enrolled in Engineering, a mere 18.9% .
As a recent Engineering grad, myself, I’m familiar with the scarcity of women first-hand. Coming from a high school where the going rate of males was 0% (Catholic school, ’nuff said), the change in demographic in university came with both sighs of relief and groans of frustration. The negative aspects of the male-dominated culture in STEM are well-documented  to say the least , but I can attest that there are some upsides. Here, I’ll present six things I’m taking with me from the experience.
I could leverage my “novelty” as a woman.
In a class of ~200 students, I’m confident my face was unmistakable (if being a woman weren’t enough, throw in the fact that I’m Filipino, and I’m completely unique within my program’s graduating class). This gave me a privilege in which I was memorable. I felt that for the sake of inclusivity I was able to speak in class more than the average male student. I doubt instructors and TAs ever had trouble remembering my face. (Novelty was also a plus when it came to dating options!)
I had a nearly drama-free social life.
My all-girls’ high school days were rife with gossip, passive aggression, manipulation and even psychological warfare. Mean Girls is not a fantasy movie. To have a day-to-day life interacting with straightforward, honest guys was a breath of fresh air.
I felt I was being taken less seriously.
I like to think I am astute in social situations: I have a pretty good record at reading people. In Engineering, certain guys’ reactions to my input have impressed upon me a certain stink: a stink which I’ve since identified as a lack of value of my opinion. In those instances, I am dang near positive that the same words coming out of a male’s mouth would be treated with more weight and respect. Sometimes, a man would even re-iterate my exact idea — obviously not having listened when I said it — and it would be much better received by the listeners. This is but one of many real micro-aggressions  I’ve experienced in my time in Engineering.
There was an obvious “bro” culture.
I was in an academically rigorous program that brought together some of the brightest young minds from around the world. Over 70% of graduates go on to pursue post-graduate and professional studies. Note I said “brightest”: not “socially conscious”, “egalitarian”, or “inclusivity-minded”. The amount of sexist and offensive humour I heard — from some of these legal adults — was appalling. And when I dared to speak up about it? I’d be seen as a stick in the mud — I mean, the majority of the “bros” thought it was funny, so why don’t I just lighten up? Ugh.
I learned the value of my female friendships.
Being surrounded by the aforementioned “bros” can get exhausting and frustrating. I should note that I’m not gonna make the generalization that my lady-friends were my sole consults on matters of love, relationships and emotional well-being; I had some wonderful, conscious male friends for that too. But when I talked with my female friends about it, I knew they could understand me in a way the guys couldn’t, because they know where I stand and what I have to deal with as a woman. Quality time with them was always so healing, refreshing and reassured me that I wasn’t alone. As mentioned in #2, women can be cruel, but you won’t be seeing me take my female friends for granted anytime soon.
I learned how to stand up for myself.
My Engineering buddies are generally well-meaning, and I care about them as people. I took my frustration of feeling devalued as a woman, and used it to make a point of educating my friends to become better feminists. I learned to confidently and calmly recite phrases like, “Could you please not interrupt me? I wasn’t finished my point.”, and “That’s disrespectful.” I learned how to assert that I know what I’m talking about when I provide input. Does that make me sound like a bitch? Yeah, probably. But think about that for a second — better yet, watch Nicki deal some truth.
Overall, I loved my Engineering education. I met some of the greatest people there (including my current partner), and learned so much not just about STEM, but about being a responsible and active member of society. Even through my hardships of being a minority in a sea of male privilege, I came out the other side a stronger, more confident woman ready to deal with a world where the odds might be stacked against me.
Linked Articles: Learn more
- U of T Media Room: U of T Engineering celebrates record number of female first-year students
- Blog Post by Isis Anchalee, the woman who got a lot of attention posing for an ad campaign for OneLogin, where she works as a software engineer. The story sparked the #IlooklikeanEngineer movement on Twitter
- Newsweek article: What Silicon Valley Thinks of Women – outlines, among many things, some of the abhorrent misogynist practices in the workplace at STEM companies.
- Everyday Feminism article: These 25 Examples of Male Privilege from a Trans Guy’s Perspective Really Prove the Point – I can relate to a LOT of these, especially because of my time in Engineering