Yes, I am a woman.

And, yes, I go to an engineering school.

When applying to colleges almost four years ago, I made a choice- I was going to apply to technical programs. I also made another choice- if I could help it, there would be women around me. I knew that this could be difficult. Even in schools where the overall gender balance is roughly equal, this doesn't really apply on a major-by-major basis.

To be fair, I knew I also wanted men around. What I really wanted was to not have my gender be something that stuck out about me. I didn't want it to be a talking point. Note: Having gone to a couple of Magic: The Gathering prerelease tournaments in the past, I have actually had guys try to initiate a conversation with me with the line "So, you're a girl." This was precisely what I hoped to avoid.

Note: I also realize my attendance at these events would classify me pretty highly as a nerd. We all have our faults.

I had a few solid options where the gender balance was reasonable enough. Olin was one of these. In fact, the next incoming freshman class is slightly tipped toward a female majority. I think this is pretty cool. (Also, looking forward to meeting you at Orientation, 2013!)

There are advantages and disadvantages to this, of course. Overall, it's a much more comfortable environment than I think I would have gotten at many other places. The other women here are overall pretty kickass, and I've developed a tight circle of friends over the past three years. It's also nice not to have to deal with the consistent disbelief of the existence of female engineers that seems to happen once we stray too far from our bubble.

But that is not to say that there aren't problems. The gender ratio is still very uneven depending on majors- ECE (electrical and computer engineering) is pretty dominated by males, while E:Bio (engineering with biology) is much more female-heavy (plus my E:Bio boyfriend). The faculty even fall along the same lines. ME (mechanical engineering) is more of a neutral group.

I was originally an ECE major, before switching to E:Systems. As part of Systems, I still had to take a number of ECE classes. While 2010 is ECE-heavy, and has a lot of females, I found these classes to be especially frustrating. Many of the males had come in with prior knowledge, and were often had the type of personality that was unafraid to yell out answers, or mutter to each other about what the professor was saying. As a freshman in Software Design, I took this to mean that they were right. It took me another semester to realize that they were just loud.

I had never had to deal with this before college. I had been valedictorian, and two of my very best friends- both girls- were #2 and #4. I had been with smart women, strong women. I knew I was awesome. But just before college, things started to change. People told me that I had only gotten into the colleges I got into because of my gender. (Apparently, this is a common thing for Olin ladies to have heard.) This was absurd. I had the highest GPA in my school's history- the second ever to get into MIT from it. I was invited into Honors programs at Columbia and others, awarded $40,000 in no-strings-attached research money from Tufts. In a year where colleges were giving out far fewer acceptances, I got no rejections. The fact that I was a girl did not get me into those schools, and did not get me that recognition. But those words, and the warning that I would soon be a small fish in a big (or at least smart) pond, made me terrified for college.

After my right vs. loud realization, though, I slowly came out of my shell. I had not raised my hand nearly at all in Software Design, and ended up having questions go unanswered as fellow classmates strove to show off with long-winded questions designed to make the professor agree that they were clever. (Note: 30% of my class thought they were in the top 10% of preparedness for this class.) In Discrete Math, when most people were closer to the same page, I realized that the intimidation I had suffered through before was just a combination of my classmates being more confident in themselves, and more okay with being wrong. I started talking. I said stupid things sometimes, but I got through it. I still sometimes felt as though I was representing all of Womanhood when I said something stupid, but slowly I realized that probably no one else did.

This, at least, was in my head.

I have had times, however, when male teammates have literally taken away the technical aspect of the project and given me scheduling and/or sewing to work on. This was not in my head. I started speaking up. I started working with male partners I saw as capable, and learned a lot from them, but still held my own (heyy Circuits!). What Olin allowed me to do, in having a small student body, and one that is generally respectful of your voice, was to find a lot more of my strength. To not let myself think of my gender as a talking point. There are always going to be some assholes who will still talk down about women, and there are always going to be those that don't play nice at first, but I'm learning how to get through this.

And now, with this post getting to the point where it may be considered "too long", I'd like to invite my fellow female bloggers to talk about their experiences being a woman at Olin. And for all you ladies looking to go into engineering- do it. It can be hard, it can be frustrating, but it can be great.

Best,

Jessi

PS: Women's Open House is this Sunday!

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