This piece is dedicated to the women who have supported me throughout my NYUAD journey.
“I’m too dumb for this.”
I kept thinking this phrase to myself over and over during my first coding class, a Java summer course in high school. After the first session, I dropped the course and never went back. “Coding is not for me,” I told my parents, certain I would never write a line of code again.
Fast forward a few years later. I will be graduating this semester with a degree in Interactive Media and Computer Science. Getting to this point following that initial experience in coding involved many moments of self-doubt, nights crying myself to sleep and classes that made me feel drained. I had little institutional support throughout my journey as a CS major, forcing me to take on emotional labor to ensure that myself and others had a safe learning environment in STEM, especially through the weSTEM student interest group.
What Creates a Harmful Learning Culture at NYUAD?
“Yes sir.” My CS professor nodded at me to answer a question in class. I looked around, confused, wondering if he meant another student. He corrected himself. “Oh sorry, sir is my default.”
Instances like this and the energies of my male professors and peers have led to me often skipping CS classes because I feel more safe learning the topic in my own space. The Zoom era has been blissful; I am able to create a positive learning environment for myself at my own pace. Traditional pedagogies in STEM classrooms are not conducive to creating brave spaces where all students feel comfortable. Sometimes, gender-marginalized people feel the pressure of being a representative for “all gender-marginalized” people in their responses. Sometimes, they are afraid of asking or answering questions in class. Sometimes, professors aren’t aware of their own biases in teaching.
Reflecting on the reasons for the negative learning culture in STEM at NYUAD is like searching for the end of a tangled web of yarn — every aspect is so interconnected with another.
One salient reason is the lack of non-male faculty in the science and engineering divisions. Because there is currently not any institutional data on faculty gender identities, I measured gender representation using the pronouns in the faculty bios on the NYUAD website. While this method likely erases gender identities outside of the male/female binary given the public-facing nature of these bios in the United Arab Emirates, it does provide some understanding of the presence, or rather lack thereof, of professors from gender-marginalized identities.
Gender Representation in STEM Faculty
In my entire undergraduate experience, I’ve only had two professors who were women of color, one in a colloquium and one in an Interactive Media course taken at Steinhardt in New York. I’ve heard some of my friends in the Social Sciences division describe how they prioritize picking female faculty for their classes, but given the strict course requirements in STEM and the predominantly male faculty in Science and Engineering, choosing classes based on professors is a luxury we do not have.
Additionally, inside and outside the classroom, there is a clear lack of allyship from our cis male-identifying peers. They don’t care because they don’t have to. STEM is hard and can bring out insecurities in all of us regardless of our identity. However, the way some cis male peers respond to that insecurity is to try to assert their dominance over everyone else. This can take the form of asking questions from two chapters ahead to seem smarter in class, taking up space in group project discussions without considering peers’ thoughts and belittling non-male students’ technical knowledge.
I am tired of cis male students not showing up to the weSTEM events featuring female speakers. I am tired of the inappropriate jokes made in predominantly male STEM spaces. I am tired of being called “not as technical” because I also care about inclusion and ethics in STEM. I am tired of seeing gender-marginalized first and second years switch majors because they don’t think they can do it. I am tired of hearing peers say “diversity isn’t an issue anymore.”
I am tired.
Why Are Support Structures Important?
I did not get a single A in any CS course my first year. Now, I’m a straight A student. All that changed was the confidence and mentorship I gained through weSTEM. Through the SIG, I learned how to manage my imposter syndrome and I found a family of people who validated what I was feeling.
The SIG introduced me to two incredible women who became my support system in this STEM journey. Whenever one of us would feel self-doubt about an interview or a class, the other two would be there to hype her up. These two women have gotten me out of bed on days I didn’t want to, helped me apply for opportunities when I didn’t think I was good enough and helped me submit assignments I didn’t think I could complete. I would not be graduating this semester if it weren’t for them. The informal conversations I have had with weSTEM members and my own experience show me that having support structures outside of the classroom is essential for student success, wellbeing and belief in their own potential.
However, while structures like weSTEM are invaluable in creating peer support systems, they are not enough. The label of being a STEM organization creates a barrier where some students do not feel “STEM enough” to join weSTEM. This feeling of inadequacy may multiply if a student is also part of another historically excluded group. Students’ abilities to access support structures should not depend on whether they choose to join a student interest group.
weSTEM is also too dependent on the emotional labor of students. The SIG has to fill in many gaps in the community: creating check-in spaces to help retain more first-years in STEM majors, highlighting role models from historically excluded communities, advising students with academic decisions, supporting students through feelings of self-doubt, promoting students’ professional development, and so much more. The e-board could easily work on weSTEM as a full-time job and still run out of time, but we are also full-time students with a demanding course schedule. What ensues is the feeling of inadequacy, a fear that we are constantly letting down the gender-marginalized people in our community.
How Can Our Institution Better Support Historically Excluded People in STEM?
It is not fair that students carry this burden. I ask our administrators to reimagine what a STEM learning environment at NYUAD could look like.
Imagine a classroom where our faculty look like us, where time is invested in creating a safe space where students feel comfortable participating in class and feel a sense of belonging. We could have group project spaces where every student’s skills are valued by their peers and every student feels heard. Imagine an institution where students have access to academic advisors with the time and energy to feel invested in their futures and give constructive advice. We could have spaces that connect historically excluded students with faculty and researchers and increase equity through creating research assistantship opportunities for Black and Latinx gender-marginalized students. We could have a university that helps close the gender gap in STEM in our surrounding community by encouraging UAE middle and high school students to explore their interests in STEM. We could have career preparation that takes into account the ways imposter syndrome seeps into our beliefs of what we can do. As a graduating senior, I hope that NYUAD can move towards this possibility, offering a supportive learning environment for all students.
What Are Ways To Be An Ally to Historically Excluded People in STEM?
This visualization conveys the initial results from a weSTEM survey titled “What do you wish your cis male peers in STEM knew?” To my cis male peers in STEM reading this, please reflect on how you have benefitted from the patriarchal structures so imbued in the STEM fields and become a better ally in the classroom, in your workplace and in your project teams.
To My Fellow Gender-Marginalized Peers in STEM:
I may not know you, but I hold deep love and appreciation for you. I am proud of everything you have accomplished and everything that you will. Since we need to constantly remind ourselves we are enough, here is today’s affirmation: “You are a force to be reckoned with.”
Remember to self reflect and figure out what you truly want independently of trying to prove yourself to your peers and societal expectations. Know that what you give your energy to should be worthy of you and that your health should come first before everything else. Surround yourself with other gender-marginalized people who build you up. You are enough.
Simran Parwani is a Data Visualization Editor. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.