Our group of graduate student mentors and their flock of high school freshmen marched through the halls of a university engineering center. Laser cutting, mechanical shearing and shaping, 3-D printing and scanning, electrical circuit labs, and more flanked every room and hall. "All this can be yours!" crooned the tour guide. "Our students have full access to all equipment, no previous knowledge of them required!"
It was enough to make me want to be an engineering undergrad, and I'm currently knee-deep in a doctoral program of the biological kind. I wondered, when we sat down to lunch, what these STEM-focused girls would think of the facilities shown to them?
"Did you notice all the boys? Hardly any girls anywhere," said one of them over pita and hummus.
"Packs of boys here, and there, and just a single girl or two scattered throughout," said another, with a maturity and quiet confidence that betrays her status as a younger sibling with many older ones to model after.
The woman in charge of recruiting these girls into this college prep program nodded. "Any time I go into an engineering class to get you interested, there's only one or two girls in the room." "It can be scary," noted a freshman with pink butterfly hair clips.
My phone's timer buzzed, reminding me of my long forgotten competent cells beckoning my attention. But - wait! Why? Why are boys scary? I wanted to ask them. I wanted to gently push a little and see what the answer was. A moment too late . . .
It is altogether possible that these young women are at the age when all boys are scary. So be it. I can live with that; it fades with a few years' experience in friendship and classroom camaraderie. But what if . . . no, that can't be it. Surely women as young as fourteen aren't already dreading the famed gender wage gap, sexism in the workplace, etc., etc., etc.?
To any such young woman, let me tell you: boys are not evil. They are, as a whole, nothing to worry about. Sure, some can be troublesome, pesty little fellows. Some girls can be too! When interacting with your peers in a classroom or professional setting, gender fades and it becomes easier, with age, to see each other as professionals. What matters is that you are surrounded by hard working, kind, collaborative people, people you can get along with and enjoy the company of - and that can happen whether they are male or female.
Sure, we've all heard horror stories. I've heard more than my fair share of girls hit on in the workplace, told she didn't belong there, or told to keep her opinions to herself. These stories are heartbreaking, and they do happen.
But when it comes to working with boys, they are not the rule. I can speak from my own experience here as well as from others - I've been the among the one-in-ten girls in a physics classroom. They were courteous to us. I've had male lab partners. They valued my contributions. I've had men as managers in the workplace. They empowered me to get the job done. Even now, I work in a male-dominated lab (something that didn't register with me when I considered joining it), and I have had nothing but great experiences with each of them. They're wonderful people. They are smart, helpful, down-to-earth, and wouldn't dream of saying something that would make me doubt my scientific instinct.
If the engineering center at the college you're considering is male dominated, that may be a clue that the college needs to change a few things! But it is not an indication of the work environment. Boys are not scary lab partners and classmates - they are people. Some are great, some have bad manners. Instead of judging a program by its appearances, talk to the students already studying there! Is there a competitive or collaborative environment among the students? Do they feel supported by their teachers? Do they enjoy learning from their peers? These are the kinds of questions we should be asking. They will inform us as to whether we will enjoy working with the students there, girls, boys, or otherwise.
And remember. If Marie Tharp had been afraid of working with boys, she'd never have mapped the sea floor, revolutionizing our knowledge of geology and the history of the earth. If Rosalind Franklin had been afraid of working with boys, she wouldn't have discovered the structure of DNA. If Tu Youyou had been afraid of working with boys, she'd never have discovered the miracle drug of artemisinin, the most potent antimalarial drug we have and the gold standard for treating malaria worldwide. Did these women ever face sexism in their work? Well, yes, actually, and that is unfortunate. But did it deter them? Never. And guess what? Many of them developed strong scientific relationships and collaborations with the male colleagues they worked with (even argued with) along the way.
High school girl, keep your chin up. Stay positive, stay confident, stick up for yourself, and don't let stereotypes hinder your dreams. We scoff at silly clichés like "girls are bad at math." How ridiculous! Let us also scoff at "boys are scary." Seek out colleagues and classmates that are awesome. Help each other through those difficult STEM classes and you'll likely make lifelong friends along the way.