Illustration by Anastasiia Zubareva

Pressures on a Female STEM Major

I chose to major in computer science, not knowing that I would have to bear the burden of destroying the stereotype of women not belonging to STEM.

Oct 9, 2016

No, this is not an article about the hardships that women in STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — face in their careers, or about the percentage of women majoring in computer science. While I do think that these issues are relevant and will continue to be so until stereotypes are broken and equal opportunities in STEM fields are provided everywhere for both men and women, I’m writing about a different kind of pressure women often feel — an internal one that we exert upon ourselves.
A study by the American Psychological Association on gender and stress showed that women are more likely to report physical symptoms associated with stress than men. But the report also says women are better at managing stress, so they will be fine. Many of us women tend to overthink things, stress immensely and worry too much. While some might argue that it is an innate biological difference, I believe that it is because of imposed gender roles and the gender gap. And I’m not talking about history here — I’m talking about our modern world. Having to abide by ridiculous laws that exempt a rapist from his charge if he marries the victim, and that forbid women from giving their children their nationality or from traveling with them without getting signed consent from their fathers might be good enough reasons for women to stress out more.
Even in places where there is legal equality between genders, women may still feel other pressures generated by society. Stereotypes are inherited, and so is the fight against them.
I never viewed the field of computer science as a gendered environment, and that still hasn’t changed. When I decided on it as a potential major in the summer before college, it never occurred to me that my gender was a minority in that field. I was completely unaware of the attempts that technology companies, universities and activists were making to attract more women to studying and working in STEM fields. Having been raised by a mother who preferred reading mathematics textbooks over magazines, who gave the sharpest replies to her male students who claimed they had a biological advantage over their female classmates in understanding mathematics and science and who expected her three daughters to get the best grades in all their subjects in school, I couldn’t grasp the idea of a gender gap in any major. Women in the Arab world aren’t discouraged from studying STEM subjects; yet, they might face society’s disapproval when they want to pursue a career in male-dominated environments. Moreover, it’s believed that a woman’s goal should be to care for her husband and children, and when being devoted to her career does not coincide with that, women are forced to prioritize one over the other.
I dove into this major not realizing that I might have to fight to break a stereotype at some point in my university life or career. Thankfully, the Computer Science program at NYU Abu Dhabi did not feel gendered at all when I first came here; yes, the number of women was significantly smaller than the number of men in Introduction to Computer Science, but that fact never mattered. We all stayed up late to code; maybe some did it because of their passion for coding, and others to get an assignment done, but we all did it anyway. We got help from a male professor and a female teacher assistant; it felt fine.
The cloud of oblivion to the gendered nature of computer science slowly evaporated as time passed. I learned about ArabWIC, the Arab Women in Computing Association, founded and chaired by Clinical Professor of Computer Science Sana Odeh. I heard about scholarships, conferences, workshops and many opportunities that targeted women in STEM. I even went to one of these conferences, Microsoft Pink Cloud in Milan, and yes, I do think the name is counterproductive in relation to the purpose of the conference. I was, and still am, happy and proud of these attempts, fostered by both men and women, to close the gender gap in the field.
But seeing the words women, STEM and minority in the same sentence over and over again, seeing the look of surprise on an acquaintance when I tell them what my major is and noticing that the number of women in my classes is decreasing each semester has started to impact me. I started seeing myself through the lens of these words: women, STEM, minority and occasionally Arab. Identifying with these words means that I have to fight more, that I have to stress more about my academics because if I don’t do well, I’ll be enforcing the stereotype and destroying every attempt that has been made to erase the gender gap from society.
When I walked into the first Computer Graphics seminar this semester, my eyes automatically scanned the room for female faces. I needed this sense of familiarity that comes from knowing that you are not the only one representing a minority, simply because I did not want to represent it. I kept watching the door, restlessly waiting for a woman to walk in. It didn’t happen. As much as I hate to admit it, I always feel a bit of discomfort every time I walk into that class, knowing that if it were any other subject, I would’ve been completely fine. Assignments for that class are always more stressful, the questions I want to ask always seem trivial and my internal fear of misrepresenting women is always present. Even though no one ever pointed it out or treated me differently because of it, I feel my gender there.
I chose to major in computer science not knowing that I would have to bear the burden of destroying the stereotype of women not belonging to STEM. Even though no one is forcing me, I feel the obligation to do so. I still want to do that, but without stressing myself to the point where it physically hurts when my code doesn’t work. I don’t want to be coding all night, not because I’d rather be painting my nails, gossiping or nurturing a child, but because I’m passionate about other things too. And sometimes, I get frustrated and question my decision to major in computer science, but I still enjoy it and don’t regret it. I really need to let go of this internal pressure to defy the stereotype before I can fully enjoy it and decide on my career path.
Of course, this is not how every woman in STEM feels, because at the end of the day, I shouldn’t have to represent anyone but myself. No one should.
Dana Abu Ali is a contributing writer. Email her at
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