Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
This week, DG Roundtable will be discussing perspectives of women in academics at Swarthmore. We hope to cover the distinct issues that women face at Swarthmore in the classroom along with the issues particular to women in STEM majors at Swarthmore. We are joined by three guests today: Shinae Yoon ’16, Sara Brakeman ’16, and Azucena Lucatero ’16.
syoon1 (Shinae Yoon ’16) [3:34 PM]
I’m a biology major in the class of 2016. My impression is that the biology department is the least male-dominated in the sciences at Swarthmore (and I’m writing in vague language here because I have no idea about the exact numbers). My experiences in the department have definitely been more positive than those of the women featured in Nehmat’s piece. My current double credit seminar in biology has 10 students, 9 of whom identify as women.
avishwanath [3:41 PM]
I am a double major in Political Science (honors major) and Mathematics. Do you think the gender of your professors plays an important role in your experiences? I realized last night that of the 20 courses I have taken at Swarthmore, only 5 have been taught by female professors, and I think if I weren’t male, I might have been more conscious of that. Is that something that makes you feel more comfortable in class, or is it not as important to you?
sarabrakeman (Sara Brakeman ’16) [3:46 PM]
I am an Engineering major and Computer Science minor in the class of 2016. The engineering department generally has a higher ratio of women to men than most engineering schools. This varies greatly year to year. Last year, there was only one graduating woman engineer whereas there are about 10 this year. I think the lack of female professors is one of the biggest negative factors in my experience. Most of my male professors are great, but it leaves me fewer female role models within my area of interest. There is only one female professor in the engineering department here and seven full time male professors. Outside of Swarthmore, I have found many female role models in the fields I am interested in, but I don’t have these role models within Swarthmore. The computer science faculty has more female professors, but I have only been in classes taught by men.
I don’t think the gender of my professor has much impact on my ability to learn and focus but it does impact the way I think about future career paths and the visibility of women in engineering in general.
alucate1 (Alzucena Lucatero ’16) [3:50 PM]
I’m a double in Biology and Asian Studies (’16), and I would agree with Shinae that, as a woman in the Biology department, I’ve felt extremely supported by my professors, both women and men. One of my academic advisors is one of the women faculty in the Biology department, and she’s wonderful about checking in on me, encouraging me, and letting me know about resources or opportunities that I should look into. She’s definitely one of my role models, but so are the other women in the Biology department. They are all very aware of the gender disparity in the sciences and are not shy about speaking up about it.
syoon1 [3:51 PM]
I haven’t consciously noticed the gender of my professors heavily influencing my learning experiences in my classes. Personally I think the other students play a larger role in determining the class atmosphere. I think the culture of the department often gives rise to a self-selection bias and I have felt and still feel more comfortable speaking in my Biology classes than I have in classes in non-science departments.
alucate1 [3:54 PM]
Where I’ve struggled the most is in my identity as a first generation woman of color coming from a low-income Latinx community, an identity that I’ve been working on and trying to engage throughout my time at Swarthmore. The Review article mentions that Mia Ferguson felt that stepping Hicks was like making a tacit agreement not to speak about identity, race, sexuality, etc., and I definitely relate to that in the Biology Department, as socially conscious as it makes an effort to be.
avishwanath [4:04 PM]
@alucate1: That is one thing I have heard about the science departments generally – that they make less of an effort to discuss issues of race and identity than the social sciences and humanities. Of course, that’s partly a function of the subject material in those other departments, but I also think it relates to a desire by the sciences to stick to “the facts” of the material rather than discussing the experience of learning it.
syoon1 [4:05 PM]
I’d like to first follow up on what Azucena shared. I think as an Asian-identifying female student in biology, sometimes the underrepresentation of other minorities isn’t as obvious to me as it should be. I remember when I was taking a large Chemistry class, my friend made a remark about the number of Black students in the class, which I think was less than 5 in a class held in SCI101.
allisonhrabar (Allison Hrabar, Co-Editor in Chief) [4:07 PM]
I’m a double major in honors Poli Sci and Film and Media Studies, but a lot of what I read in the Review about women’s experiences in STEM resonated with my experiences in the social sciences. In particular, I agree with Shinae that other students play a larger role in my class experiences than the gender of my professors. The vast majority of the poli sci courses I’ve taken have been male dominated, both in terms of numbers and who is speaking in class.
alucate1 [4:16 PM]
That’s also true for the large, intro Biology and Chemistry classes. It’s usually the white male students who ask questions and engage the professor during lecture in Sci 101.
sarabrakeman [4:17 PM]
I agree as well. I notice the breakdown of students in my classes way more than gender of my professors. There is one difference I’ve noticed between the STEM courses and humanities/social science courses I’ve taken at Swarthmore. Students of all genders seems to speak up equally within humanities and social sciences, sometimes women dominate certain courses. But with my STEM classes, there are very few women who speak up in class. In high school, I was always speaking in class. But in my STEM courses here, I prefer to sit back and not participate. In other classes with more women, I seem to be more comfortable participating more.
avishwanath [7:34 PM]
So what do you all think the best way to correct some of these issues concretely is? Is it just a matter of having men be more aware of these dynamics? Or do there need to be more specific programs implemented?
sarabrakeman [8:34 PM]
I don’t think there need to be any specific programs. I have felt incredibly supported at Swarthmore. As gender ratios shift nationally and more women become involved in STEM, the ratios at Swat should change as well to create a more diverse classroom. The one thing that we can control is making sure all our peers feel comfortable in the classroom and social spaces. I have experienced many men, some who are good friends, mansplaining and talking down to me when I ask a question. They often try to explain the entire topic to me instead of just clarifying my specific confusion. That is something that we ourselves can change by speaking respectfully to each other.
allisonhrabar [9:33 PM]
I agree Sara, I think a big change can come from trying to be more conscious of the way we engage with each other in class. I’m sure many men on this campus, if directly asked, wouldn’t say that they’ve silenced women in classrooms. But I’ve witnessed guys in almost all of my classes not notice how they speak without raising their hand while others are waiting, or how much time they spend speaking, or how they interrupt or speak over others. When people frame this as just an issue of women’s confidence it makes me angry, since I often do have something to say, but don’t get the chance to say it. I’d rather other classmates open the floor rather than force me to adopt their inconsiderate behaviour.
avishwanath [9:41 PM]
I have to say that I think that is something I definitely do – if I have an idea, I will jump into a conversation (especially in an academic discussion outside of the classroom). And I’ve become more aware in recent years in such conversations with men and women that I end up unconsciously talking to the other men, so it’s something I try to be aware of – especially when I interrupt a woman – by apologizing and letting her speak instead of myself.
isaacl (Isaac Lee, Assistant Opinions Editor) [10:12 PM]
But how does this affect STEM subjects more? This phenomenon of men speaking more out of turn than usual should affect discussion based classes, which often includes social sciences and humanities.
sarabrakeman [10:17 PM]
I think this affects STEM subjects more because the gender ratio is more skewed in those classes, especially engineering and computer science. Therefore, these behaviours appear more and may mean that the women in the class either don’t have the opportunity to speak, like Allison pointed out, or that they don’t feel they can contribute to the male-dominated conversation. Even though STEM classes are often lecture-based, there are still endless opportunities to interject with a question or comment. Our society definitely expects men to be better at these subjects and this plays out in classroom dynamics, regardless of the intentions of those in the room.