Race and Casual Sexism in STEM

Two things I’ve been reflecting about vis à vis gender and race during my time at MIT.

1. As a Course 16 (aerospace engineering), my foremost impression of the department is one of whiteness. During rush, when I introduced myself to an upperclassman as being interested in aerospace engineering, his first question was “Are you a US citizen?” It struck me as odd at the time, and I dismissed the feeling of discomfort when he explained that most major aerospace corporations, under ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulation), cannot hire non-US citizens, making it very difficult for foreign nationals to secure positions in the aerospace industry. Perhaps ITAR sets a baseline for the aerospace industry as a whole, or perhaps the institutional nature of the aerospace industry prevents it from changing very quickly when it comes to race and gender integration. By no means is the department blatantly racist, but it nevertheless perpetuates a sense of outsiderness or exclusion that’s difficult to explain. It was a feeling I struggled to communicate to my older brother, but the moment I said “The department is really…white” he laughed in comprehension.

2. The maleness of aerospace industry is positively striking. In what I now realize is somewhat of an anomaly, the MIT Design/Build/Fly remote-control aircraft team I joined my freshman year was over 50% female, with a predominantly female leadership. Four observations of sexism in STEM:

a. The DBF captain related an experience at competition where a male judge passed over her and turned to a male teammate to ask technical questions about the airplane.
b. When I went to competition myself, the teams present were in fact overwhelmingly male, and the administration of the competition was completely male as well.
c. Moreover, USC (who went on to win the competition) staged a spirited dress-up day in which all the male members of the team dressed in flight suits–while all the female members got shorts and pink tank tops.
d. At my UROP in an aeroastro laboratory here at MIT, I had worked with my grad student mentor for a few hours attempting to debug some old code. When we finally cracked it, we high-fived each other, and my mentor commented that “This is great, it’s like that feeling when you understand a girl for the first time.”

These situations are by themselves largely innocuous, but nevertheless perpetuate an atmosphere of exclusion for nonmale, nonwhite aspiring engineers. I have been fortunate to be given the perks associated with the privilege of being male and Asian; I cannot help but wonder how many women have been discouraged or driven away by subliminal messages that they were unwelcome or that the industry was only suited for men.

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One thought on “Race and Casual Sexism in STEM

  1. It’s really amazing how conformist so many engineering disciplines are. If you don’t fit the mold, no one thinks you’re capable of succeeding. I’m glad that this type of behavior is being discussed, though; at the very least, drawing attention to the inherent biases is a step towards overcoming them.

    Liked by 1 person

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