Overcoming the STEM Glass Ceiling

Written by Melanie Herbert And Molly Cantillon, Co-Founders of GirlTechBoss

Being different from others around you is often an isolating experience. No one wants to be an outsider. It is natural to want to feel connected to others. Recently, I interviewed a female engineer, (who has requested to remain anonymous), who has always struggled with this sense of belonging. The challenges she faced as a result of societal norms and stereotypes nearly caused her to second guess her passions, but now she uses these hurdles as motivation. Her demographic and field of interest highlight the immense determination and thick-skin that women in STEM had to pursue her dreams.

Studying chemical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, she explains, was the beginning of her often isolating STEM journey. The stereotype that women are not as smart or as capable as men, especially in the STEM field, made her first semester of physics, organic chemistry, and calculus challenges. She explains, “My first semester at RPI was a difficult time for me, as my intelligence was often doubted. Being the only girl in many of my classes, I constantly had to prove my knowledge and stand up for my ideas. It was easy to feel like I didn’t belong.” This feeling, which she explains is quite familiar to other women in the majority male industries, has become known as ‘imposter syndrome’- the feeling that you don’t quite belong. After proving her intelligence through a particular bridge-building project in her physics C class, she was able to finally gain the approval of her peers and became closer to them. At times, however, she still felt that there was always this impermeable glass ceiling that kept her from ever truly belonging and being accepted.

The constant urge to prove her intelligence finally stopped once she hit the workforce, as she formed a trusted bond with the members of her team. The men on her team saw her hard work ethic and values, and she never had any problems with people doubting her knowledge. However, being the only woman on the team, she struggled socially. She describes how she wasn’t invited to many co-worker social gatherings. She explains, “I remember that the guys used to sometimes go out together after work and I wasn't invited even though they considered me one of them and they respected me. When they went to go do something socially, I kind of felt that I was an outsider and perhaps it was because, you know, guys just want to hang out with guys.”

When dealing with these social struggles in the workforce, and earlier in college, when grappling with acceptance, she explains that it was really her mindset that got her through the doubt and challenging times. She explains, “I often felt very alone but I've learned to kind of get past that by just focusing on the factor that I love what I do. [...] I’m proud of what I have accomplished and I think I owe it to my determination and mindset.” However, not all women have this mindset going into male-dominated industries and often struggle with self-doubt.

Organizations that support women in STEM industries such as GirlsWhoCode and Girls In Tech are a step in the right direction. Organizations like these, she explains, are not only aiding in filling in gender gaps but are creating the female community that she felt deprived of in college and in the workforce. The preconceived idea that women are intellectually inferior to men and don’t belong in STEM, she believes, causes women to be wary of joining STEM. She explains that it is now her mission to spread support by hosting meetups with other women involved in engineering and STEM in New York.

I think that as a nation that is currently working towards closing the gender gaps in STEM industries, we need to continue to work towards suppressing isolationism and supporting women’s movements that bring communities together and support women’s true passions. By labeling women and keeping them confined, we are just limiting the great things our world can create.

Four Female Pioneers in STEM Who Changed the World Forever:

Ada Lovelace was an English mathematician and writer born in 1815. Working alongside esteemed inventor Charles Babbage, she developed the Analytical Engine, a machine that could perform complex mathematical calculations independently. She is best known for her contributions to algorithms that could be carried out on these computers, such as an extension for computing Bernoulli numbers. As a result, she is accredited with creating one of the world’s first computer algorithms.

Radia Perlman is an American computer programmer and network engineer. She developed the well-known Spanning Tree Protocol algorithm essential to computer functioning today as well as a child-friendly programming language used by children as young as 3 years old! It is no surprise she is often called the mother of the internet.

Hypatia was a Hellenistic philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician who lived in Alexandria Egypt. An early adopter of scientific thought through rational, sound evidence, Hypatia taught and led the Neoplatonist school of philosophy in Alexandria, contributing immensely to the field of mathematics. Today, she is commonly regarded as the earliest female mathematician and one of the best of her time.

Katherine Johnson was an African-American mathematician who spent 35 years at NASA mastering complex manual calculations and pioneering the use of computers to perform these tasks. Her calculations of orbital mechanics were essential to the success of NASA’s 1962 Friendship 7 Mission and the subsequent U.S. crewed spaceflights.