Being the “only girl”

Araha (she/her/hers), 17, Illinois

“I'd never experienced or witnessed the gender disparity in STEM fields before, so while I knew it existed, I'd never had reason to believe I'd come to realize it personally. I didn't and don't know what career path I'd like to pursue, so I'd never taken extra STEM classes. But for my senior year, I wanted to challenge myself and open up some new possibilities, so I took three challenging courses--AP Computer Science A, AP Physics C, and multivariable calculus. On the first day of school, the gender disparity in my schedule was more pronounced than I could ever expect. I was the only girl in calculus, and at first sat by myself while the boys were concentrated together on the other side of the room. In my computer science class, I found out that I was one of two girls. And in my physics class, one of three in a class of twenty-five. I'd never been this separated from other women and girls in my life. One other student in my math class exclaimed one day, "did you know you were the only girl?" Of course I knew. There was no way I couldn't. But at the same time, I can say, a month into school, that the boys in my classes have never made me feel "othered" because of my gender. I ended up sitting next to my male friends in math after the first of school, and we work together on challenging problems. In computer science, my friends with more advanced computer science knowledge help me understand the work without the slightest of condescension. In Physics, I am an active participant in lab analyses and other students ask me for help. But I'd still be lying if I said the disparity isn't noticeable. Knowing I'm the only girl in my math class, I feel the need to get ahead on assignments, work harder, do anything to ensure I represent my gender positively, sometimes without even realizing it. And I can't help but wonder why it is that there is such a disparity. Our school doesn't prevent girls from taking such classes--my male trigonometry and calculus teacher sophomore year even spent a period trying to convince the girls in our class to take a computer science course. There is a more deeply engrained cultural expectation and stereotype, and I think sometimes I might even be perpetuating those stereotypes by reflecting what society tells me. In the beginning days of school, I noticed myself (to my current distress, upon reflection) tending to defer to the boys around me--assuming they know more, letting them take initiative, telling them I'd later need their help--when I was equally if not more qualified in some of the topics. No one had ever told me explicitly about the male STEM nerd stereotype, but somewhere along the way I had internalized it, and that is something I will need to combat within myself. But I have hope for myself and for our world. Last week, as I was leaving math class to speak at our state's board of education meeting, one of my friends told me, "We're all so proud of you--you'll do great!" And that reminded me that even as the only girl in my class, I wasn't truly alone.”

And that reminded me that even as the only girl in my class, I wasn't truly alone.