Must a girl in STEM be a ‘girl in STEM’?


Every weekday at 10:06 a.m., I walk into my high school engineering class and take a seat among my peers. I spend the period learning the same material as my classmates, completing the same assignments as them and receiving the same education. I wouldn’t think twice about attending if it weren’t for the fact that 15 pairs of eyes are on me the moment I walk into the room, for one reason and one reason only: I’m a girl in a classroom full of boys.
Amazingly, this one simple attribute of mine has the power to instantly draw so much attention. For roughly 40 minutes, I am no longer a student who loves engineering. Rather, I’m a girl who loves engineering.
I’d like to imagine a perfect world, with equal participation of men and women in all professions. However, while there is more opportunity these days for both men and women to break into rigidly defined, gender-specific jobs, an imbalance still holds in certain career paths, including science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM. I’m a high school freshman who has always been passionate about STEM. Yet despite efforts by well-meaning stakeholders and educators to promote more enthusiasm among women in these subjects, I can’t help but feel that today’s inspiring message for girls in the field is too wrapped up in their gender.
Instead of pushing for girls to be treated like everyone else, there is an unhealthy obsession with making gender the centerpiece of today’s advocacy for girls in STEM.
I often receive praise for being “confident enough” to pursue what has been labeled an unlikely passion for my gender. I garner attention and adulation for defying gender barriers by deciding to enroll in STEM-based classes.

But I find this focus on my gender distracting from my work and frustrating, to say the least. I just want to escape the label of feminism attached to my interest in STEM, and simply be able to enter my engineering class without getting noticed, just like boys do.
Today’s educational programs, like Girls Who Code, while inspiring and well-intentioned, inadvertently call attention to the fact that STEM isn’t a “normal” activity for girls. By singling out girls in creating specialized female-oriented programs, educators seem to acknowledge that girls aren’t expected to be like their gender opposites in science. To me, it’s akin to creating a group called Teenagers Who Respect Their Parents or Kids Who Aren’t Always On Their Phones.
Granted, there is no mistaking that my interests in STEM as a girl are considered rare by today’s standards. Women account for roughly half of the population, but they comprise only 28 percent of workers in STEM fields, according to the American Association of University Women. Perhaps that’s because math and science continue to be promoted as “male-oriented” subjects.
I’ve seen this firsthand. In middle school, I was one of two girls in a class of 20 students in a computer animation program. On the website of a prestigious math summer program, girls were especially encouraged to apply, because most of its participants are male. Disturbingly, even my early-childhood day camp discouraged girls from choosing science-related activities, and our choice of workshops didn’t include the boys’ activities of engineering and rocket science. Our choices included ceramics, dance and “beauty school.”
Yes, there is still a lack of equality in perception, but the way to fix this isn’t by forming a club exclusively for girls that puts the emphasis on “girls coding” instead of simply “coding.” Educators should create courses that include both boys and girls. While I’m grateful for the progress women have made in STEM, I look forward to the day when walking into my engineering class won’t be cause for surprise.

Ilana Greenberg is a freshman at North Shore Hebrew Academy High School in Great Neck.