‘Girls' is Out. ‘Women’ is In.

I spent the last year developing a new initiative for our department.  Much like Living Learning Communities, Colorado School of Mines Residence Life will be having four Theme Housing Communities starting in the upcoming academic year.  And while the experience of developing something for your department or institution is cool as an entry level professional, this post is about the opportunities it has afforded me, as well as how it has influenced my thinking.

 One of the communities will be Women In Engineering.  It was very purposefully placed in one of the buildings I supervise.  This community will have an emphasis on the professional (negotiation skills, business etiquette, succeeding in the workplace) and personal (self-esteem, body image, personality tests) development of the 24 students participating.  I will also be mentoring and teaching their First Year Experience class.  I am so excited to work with this population; I can barely contain myself most days.  This enthusiasm stems from the interest I gained while working on my thesis discussing Women’s Self-Concept.  Long story short: I am all about women’s development and providing our students with the skills they need to be successful in and after college.

 With this being said, I have been reading quite a few articles about women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields of study.  Overwhelmingly, women are still the minority in STEM degree paths (some more than others), in academia, and in industry.  The articles discuss the nature versus nurture argument: are women less apt to the STEM fields based on biology?  Or does it have to do with socialization of gender expectations, explicit/implicit bias women face, and the support they have available?  I believe (and my research confirms) it is the latter.

 Not only have I been preparing for this community to arrive, but I have also been using the knowledge I have to support the current women at Mines.  Women make up 25% of the population, which is quite different than the majority of other institutions around the United States.  Despite being the majority of people in colleges, women are still the minority, in the sense that the female experience is often not represented or it is minimalized.  This past year, I constantly challenged gender expectations, norms, and language.   Not only do these stereotypes hurt women, but they also hurt men.  I challenge you to challenge the status quo.  Here are a few simple ways to support our female students, STEM or not:

  • Start using ‘women,’ rather than girls.  We do not call men boys.
  • Stop using “you guys” when referring to a mixed gendered population.  I have started using ‘team’ instead.
  • It is the year 2012: anyone can pursue whichever profession he or she deems desirable.  Consider gender-neutral terms regarding professions.  Fireman, stewardess, mailman, and policeman can be changed to firefighter, flight attendant postmaster, and police officer.  Also consider gender neutral profession terms that we often assign a gender to: nurse, doctor, secretary, and lawyer.  Not all nurses and secretaries are women, and not all doctors and lawyers are men.
Changing our vocabulary is actually quite powerful.  Not hearing your experience represented in the profession you have interest in does not suggest that possibilities exist.  As professionals with the opportunity to influence and inspire young minds, removing these gendered terms and stereotypes from our language can give women the hope that they have the same opportunity as their male peers.

 As I have been communicating via email with the participants of the Women in Engineering community, I continue to only use the word ‘women’ (instead of girls) as I describe who they will be sharing the experience with and how it will impact their development.  I smile when I see that they respond back referring to themselves and their peers as women.  It’s a small step forward that will empower them to make huge leaps forward in the future.

Katie Schmalzel

@katieschmalzel

Student Affairs - the First Years

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