Living with a snake in the house: Women in STEM

When junior and science student Dori Pálfi attended an academic conference during a semester abroad in New York, she was approached by two girls who ...

When junior and science student Dori Pálfi attended an academic conference during a semester abroad in New York, she was approached by two girls who asked her why she was studying neuroscience. Palfi's explanation — that she'd been inspired by her grandparents' careers in chemistry and geology — was met with a surprised response; they didn't think that Palfi, young and blonde, would fit the typical stereotype of a scientist.
Many women pursuing STEM-related studies or careers are faced with misconceptions and myths surrounding their skills and potential for success. Although many female STEM students at NYU Abu Dhabi do not feel discouraged or disadvantaged at the university, Pálfi went through several awkward experiences while studying abroad at NYU New York.
“Just the fact that you go to a huge lecture hall, and you notice that the percentage of girls is like 10 to 20 percent, is sort of discouraging,” she said. “And just the way people look at girls who wear makeup. There was this one girl who was wearing boots [with a slight heel], and the lab instructor made fun of her. Small things like that add up.”
Kirsten Sadler Edepli, Associate Professor of Biology at Mount Sinai Hospital, believes that this feeling of being part of a minority hinders women’s advancement in science, technology, engineering and math careers. Sadler Edepli recalled colleague Mary Murphy, an assistant professor at Indiana University who works on the impact of stereotype threat on women's performance in Stem. Murphy described the threat as being aware of a snake loose in a house; just like entering a new room of the house, you know that there is a snake loose every time you begin a conversation with somebody, and part of you is always looking for it.
“Part of your mental energy is devoted to how you’re being perceived, and even though it’s unconscious ... you have less of your brain available to think about the topic at hand,” she explained. “There are some women who don’t even notice [the low percentage of women in a room]."
"I notice," she said. "When I’m the only woman in the room, I notice. And I think that because of that, I sit at the head of the table. I make sure I’m present.”
Why are so many girls shying away from STEM fields? Sophomore Tiantian Zheng believes that part of the reason is because society perceives STEM as an uncommon pathway for women, that somehow girls are perceived to be not as capable as boys in understanding abstract concepts.
“From personal experience, this teaches girls at a young age that it’s OK for them to give up when they find subjects such as maths difficult. But because STEM fields require very specific foundational skills, they are unable to then re-enter these fields at a later age,” said Zheng, who had enjoyed studying the natural sciences throughout high school, and discovered a particular interest in physics at NYUAD.
Junior Farah Shamout, who is originally from Jordan, explained that in the Arab world, there are more female STEM majors than in the West.
“However, they shy away from getting into the industry itself due to family objections and other cultural factors, such as working in a mixed-gender environment,” she added.
Shamout had hoped to pursue a path that intersected mathematics, physics and art, and consequently chose to major in computer engineering. She added that those in the field should avoid gender-specific portrayals of STEM careers.
“For example, [so-called] pink efforts created by some companies or parties to show STEM as a woman’s field are equally as bad as portraying it as a man’s field,” she said.
According to Sadler Edepli, another obstacle is the belief that you can’t be an engineer and a mother, that you will have to sacrifice your career to have children. Yet Sadler Edepli has four children, three of whom live at home, and she is still able to manage a successful career in the sciences.
“I had my first baby when I was a postdoc, and it was hard, but ... you can’t imagine how much you’re going to love this baby until you meet him, and it just changed my perspective,” she added. “I never give reason to complain, when I say I’m going to do something I get it done.”
Another problem Sadler Edepli identified was the feeling of not belonging, the so-called imposter syndrome that she encountered while attending Harvard Medical School. Women would ask themselves how they had ended up studying at Harvard, believing that their admission had been a mistake, so they would just lay low and get by.
“But you got straight A’s and you played first violin and built a school in a developing country, you are clearly not an imposter,” said Sadler Edepli.
Both Pálfi and Sadler Edepli believed that part of the problem lay in the few examples of women in positions of leadership in STEM, resulting in hardly any role models for girls looking to pursue the sciences.
“Men in general tend to have a path. They graduate from high school, they graduate from college, they go to graduate school, they go to postdoc, they get a job,” explained Sadler Edepli, who will be coming to NYUAD to teach. “It’s not the same for women. There’s no path. And I think having women come and tell them stories, that for me has been so powerful.”
Building a community connecting women in science, helping students find mentors and role models to follow, is something that Sadler Edepli wants to instigate at NYUAD once she moves to the campus.
“Even if my story is not like this other woman’s story, at least I know there’s a story and I can create my own,” she said. “Hearing other’s stories, I personally believe, has been of great help for me.”
Sadler Edepli also believes that it is not just women's responsibility, but also men's, to realize that less gender diversity in the field will mean fewer creative and exciting solutions in the sciences.
Delving deeper into the reasons why people have certain perceptions of women in the sciences, Sadler Edepli explained that often it happens unconsciously, because people evaluating women typically do not think of them as successful researchers, coders or mechanical engineers.
“It’s really important to actively identify people who can be in your corner, mentors that really will come to bat for you and will encourage you, and will give you honest criticism,” said Sadler Edepli. “Science is all about communities, so you don’t do it alone. You make sure that you have people who really have your back ... and the other, I think, is having that tough skin. So you sit in the front row, you sit at the table, you voice your ideas, you take those risks.”
Editor's note: The headline and anecdote from the first paragraph were edited on April 19 to remove a direct quote that had been said off the record. 
Paula Dozsa is deputy features editor. Email her at
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