“It is particularly incumbent on those who never change their opinion, to be secure of judging properly at first.”
― Jane Austen,
After spending a few months in Seattle, I kind of got used to a certain reaction from people when sharing my story and journey of moving to Seattle; their sudden interest and amusement at the fact that I travelled all this way to pursue my graduate studies in engineering always struck me as odd. At first, I didn’t think too much of it, but with time, their astonishment was more offending than amusing. Why were they genuinely surprised? Was it because I was from the Middle East? Or that I’m a Muslim woman wearing a hijab, a headscarf, while pursuing grad school? I decided that the next time a stranger brings up the topic, I’d have to address the elephant in the room.
It happened to be the unfortunate luck of an older woman, who I had encountered at a store at the University Village, an open mall beside the campus. She seemed extremely thrilled and told me how special I must be for being able to pursue my career in engineering. I turned to her and asked with a sense of impatience, “And why would you think that being an engineer is so special?” She was a little taken aback by my frustration at her heartfelt enthusiasm. To my dismay, she said, “Well, you know. You are a woman!” She went on to tell me that I should be proud of myself, as most women don’t do well in math and science. I smiled politely and excused myself. I was sure that she was confused.
You see, I happen to come from Kuwait, one of the smallest countries in the Middle East. For those who are not quite aware, Kuwait is recognized for having one of the highest tertiary education enrollment rates of females in the region, averaging between 40% to 50% , studying all subjects across the board, including math and science (MicKinsey and Company, 2014). Ironically, female students have surpassed their male counterparts; the government had to intervene to balance out the disproportional enrollment of female students in certain fields. For example, in 1995, Kuwait University implemented different admission policies for female and male students in a desperate attempt to curb the number of female students admitted in fields such as science, engineering, and medicine. “Out of the entire student population, 8.9% of women chose to study science, outnumbering the meager 3.5% of men that studied science, in 1995–1996. Female students were required to have a 3.3 GPA to be admitted to the engineering department, while male students need only a 2.8 GPA” (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2017). When the policy was questioned as being discriminatory, the answer was that it might seem like it, but it was done for the betterment of the country. To be specific, the decree would help protect a minority group, which in this case is men in engineering. The policy was only lifted a few years ago in support of equal opportunity. In 2017 alone, 539 female students were accepted into the college of engineering, while only 137 male students were admitted to the same college. This may even suggest that the gender gap has gotten worse over the years. I promise that this is not an “alternative fact” or “fake news”. Thus, from my perspective, it was quite bizarre to claim that I should consider myself “special” for being a female engineer.
Later that day, I found myself googling, “women engineers in the States”. Maybe I needed to prove to myself that that woman was delusional and that the sincerity in her voice and that genuine sense of pride was sadly wasted on me. Deep down, I thought, she should be ashamed of herself for suggesting that women don’t do as well in math and science as men would. What era does she think we live in? I shouldn’t have left without telling her exactly what I thought and set her straight. I looked carelessly at the results of my google search, only to shockingly find out that I belong to yet another minority group in the States: women in engineering! This can’t be right!
Over the next few days, I was more aware of my surroundings. For the first time since joining UW, I began to notice how there were far more men in my classrooms than there were women. There is definitely a gender gap in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in both America and Kuwait, but in this case, the gaps were reversed. How did this happen? More importantly, how did I fail to notice the obvious? I still remember that one time I pointed out a mistake my professor had made in one of his equations in his notes. His immediate reaction was “I doubt it”, which, as it turns out, he should’ve doubted, as my answer was in fact correct. What was he doubting exactly? My ability to detect a mistake or his ability to make one? Was he just arrogant or was I being subjected to some form of unconscious bias?
Sometimes, it is very hard for me to figure out the source behind what might seem like an unconscious bias. I don’t just belong to one, but several minority groups after moving to the States. Is it because I’m a Muslim? Do they stare at me because I wear a hijab? Do they think it gets in the way of my brain functioning normally? Could it be the fact that I’m from the Middle East? Maybe the general perception is that competence is reserved only for people from certain backgrounds? Now, I must consider that it could also be that I’m a woman in STEM. If I were to go back in time, I would’ve simply asked my professor to share what was going through his head exactly at that time; maybe he was just tired of students telling him he had made a mistake in his equations when he didn’t.
Come to think of it, it could also be that I am just tired and that I have lost the ability to separate arrogance from prejudice or exhaustion. Maybe, I am the one who needs to make sure that her own prejudices are in check.