cover image

Illustration Courtesy of Gayoung Lee.

A Conversation with two Women in STEM at NYUAD: Opportunities and Obstacles

While the stereotype that STEM fields are not for women has long been pigeonholed, it may take even longer for the practical difficulties faced by female STEM students to disappear completely.

Nov 28, 2021

STEM, short for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, continues to be a hot potato for students, scholars and professionals alike. The STEM field used to be viewed as unsuitable for female-identifying individuals and while this stereotype has long been pigeonholed, it may take even longer for the practical difficulties that women face in this field to disappear completely.
To discuss some of the practical difficulties female STEM students face, particularly at NYU Abu Dhabi, Aiša Hodžić and Pelin Demirci joined the Gazelle for a casual conversation. Hodžić, Class of 2022, is pursuing a major in Computer Science along with a minor in Mathematics. Demirci, Class of 2024, is studying Chemistry with a minor in Engineering.
Both Hodžić and Demirci shared an understanding on how gender-based pressures became more distinct after college rather than within their respective communities where it is somewhat encouraged to pursue a STEM major.
“There is this prejudice in Turkey that if you were good at STEM, you should be in STEM,” noted Demirci.
Similar to Demirici, Hodžić shared the communal pressures to pursue an education in STEM: “Engineering was something that was expected of me from before. But I did feel that my parents were trying to steer me away from arts, music, etc. For generations [my parents and community] have been considering some majors as the ones you should be taking to be strong and successful.’”
In addition to such expectations, the remote nature of computer science careers was a big plus for Hodžić — they provided a stark contrast to the reality of STEM academia at university and beyond.
“Even at NYUAD, the representation of girls in Computer Science is very, very low. In most classes, [the female to male ratio is] 20 to 80. I was speaking to one of the professors … he also said across various countries this ratio is usually 20 to 80, or even more unbalanced,” explained Hodžić.
Hodžić noted that the gender skewed ratio in STEM became even more pronounced in higher positions of authority. Throughout her three and a half years of college education she had only one female professor teaching Computer Science. She believes that it points to a greater obstacle facing girls in STEM fields: the lack of female role models.
“I think that is partially why I never considered before that Computer Science would be something I could be studying,” she admitted. “I didn’t see someone like me in terms of gender pursuing this specific role, teaching these courses, being successful, having startups … TV and media has this influence as well. When you see gamers, when you see hackers, huge roles of people coding … programming … it’s usually a high percentage of males, if not all.”
“All of these factors form a stereotype on what it means to be a Computer Science student, and consciously or subconsciously, you don’t see yourself in it,” she added. “We really need to diversify this image. People are so different, and really it can be just anyone with any sort of lifestyle.”
Demirci also struggled with such stereotypes surrounding the image of a STEM student: “I’ve always felt that the traditional image of femininity doesn’t fit in the science field. Just dressing femininely in class or the lab [felt] off for me. In STEM classes, I would say I’ve always felt the need to prove that I am fit to be here.”
“Yeah. I can totally agree,” added Hodžić. “I think the need to prove yourself is constant. Especially if you start without any experience, which I did. I remember that when I got an internship, there was a comment from a male classmate that someone earned it for me. That doesn't make any sense — I went through all the interviews, did all the questions on my own, and it was me answering the question [sic].”
They, however, went on to acknowledge that these challenges were not the defining elements of their academic experience. As STEM students at NYUAD, there were resources they found helpful.
“I’m really glad we have the Unix lab, a space on the third floor near the library for computer science — or for any student — to use code to work on projects. It organizes a lot of events and office hours. I like having it as a space not necessarily just for coding but also chatting about courses and meeting new people,” said Hodžić.
“What has helped me is definitely weSTEM,” mentioned Demirci. “There’s a mentorship program for people who identify as women. Female upperclassmen mentors are really helpful in navigating classes and more.”
Hodžić and Pelin still see a need for greater effort in supporting STEM students to circumvent gender-specific challenges, especially through networking opportunities.
“Maybe there could have been more spaces where [STEM students] could just meet each other, at least. I think all people doing that are 20 people, that's not that many. 40 people doing four majors — it’s a small community,” explained Demirci.
“I think, in terms of internships, there’s a lot of work to be done. It takes a huge step to get into applying and being comfortable with that,” added Hodžić. “The Career Development Center could do a better job of showing us where previous students interned and connecting us [with them]. There are a couple of resources, but there are a lot of restrictions.”
Hodžić went on to reinstall hope and advise future students to consider the STEM programme: “Just try [computer science] … So much of computer science is done not sitting in front of computers and coding. Just giving it a thought is already a big step … Take Introduction to Computer Science. The odds are you are going to need coding skills no matter what major you pick, so you would not be wasting your credits.”
“Don’t really be afraid of Foundations of Science. Don’t be afraid of difficult things in general. What you see as difficult now may not be like that later. There are a lot of resources. Office hours are a godsend in FoS. Recitations are useful,” stated Hodžić. “Don’t think you can’t handle it, because you can.”
Gayoung Lee is Deputy Features Editor. Email her at
gazelle logo