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STEM women must redefine success if to create change

I’ve always known I wanted to be a STEM major, no questions asked. What’s surprising to me, though, is how few women seem to share my absolutism when it comes to pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

According to a study by Georgetown University, only 31 percent of computer and math majors are women, and only 16 percent of engineering majors are women.

There has to be a reason for such dismal numbers. One theory taking hold is that it’s the fear of failure or the difficulty of attaining a 4.0 GPA that leads few women to complete STEM programs. Whatever the case, the leaky pipeline of women falling out of high-demand and lucrative degree options needs to stop.

I’ll be honest, it wasn’t until I came to college that I got my first C, which also led to my first existential crisis about the trajectory of my life — both as a woman and as an aspiring scientist. The C was in calculus, one of the fundamental courses for my major, which made it even worse.

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However, this discouraging feeling is apparently commonplace for women in STEM fields. Catherine Rampell of The Washington Post recently wrote an article about how women are less likely to continue pursuing degrees in STEM subjects if they receives lower grades than the As they want.

According to Rampell, women are afraid of performing imperfectly in a field that has one of the worst reputations for awarding As. Rather than sticking it out, women tend to shy away from classes in which Bs or even Cs are the highest-awarded grades because they equate As with success and anything lower with failure. Interestingly enough, men tend to share fewer of these reservations.

Neither Rampell nor her interviewees know exactly where this male-female difference comes from, especially because women are usually just as prepared as men to enter STEM fields. Women are also often more eager to study in those fields than their male counterparts.

Yes, it was tough earning a C for the first time and of course I thought about completely changing my career path because of it, but where’s the fun in that?

It shouldn’t feel less acceptable for a woman to earn a C in a difficult course when she’s doing just as well as the other students. But women in STEM feel like they have something to prove because of their gender, not realizing that a (very difficult to obtain) perfect GPA isn’t the only measure of success.

Women tend to excel in higher education. In an article for Slate, Amanda Hess reminds us that women have earned 10 million more degrees than men since 1982. Hard work really does pay off, including in the fields that intimidate us the most.

If the prospect of kicking major ass in male-centric STEM fields isn’t enough motivation to overcome the very real fear of failure, consider the post-graduate opportunities for women with such degrees.

The Georgetown University study also found that all 10 of the top-earning majors in America are related to STEM, and the median earnings per year start at $80,000. What’s more, nine out of 10 of the top-earning majors for women are also STEM fields, the 10th being business economics.

STEM fields are grueling, time-consuming and challenging to break into, and yet these don’t really seem to be the determining factors behind women dropping out.

Graduating with a STEM degree is an accomplishment in and of itself, yet women feel pressured to graduate with not only a degree, but also perfect grades, before they consider themselves successful. This perception just doesn’t work — opt into the challenge, don’t drop out from the pressure.

It’s not necessary for women to be scared away from STEM because of a need to be perfect or fear of failure. STEM fields offer some of the highest earning potentials in the business sector, along with opportunities to participate in cutting-edge research and development. Yes, the courses are difficult and can feel unrewarding on the grade scale, but success does not amount to a 4.0.

In STEM, the work does not end after graduation — these fields have a reputation for being challenging for good reason. However, unless there are women already there to set the example, this generation of aspiring STEM women will not be able to realize that perfection isn’t everything.

Mackenzie Brown is a pre-physio freshman. Follow her @mac_brown01


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Updated December 5, 2021