The Importance of Mental Health as a Woman in STEM

Let’s get this straight: being a woman in STEM is HARD! College is hard, but knowing that I am going into an industry that is male-dominated can be as a woman and even more of a challenge. Being a Mathematics major with minors in Data Science, Website Development and Statistics, the stress and anxiety that I get knowing that many of the people that I am interviewing with for jobs are men is extremely nerve-wracking. At the same time, it also makes me nervous to know that I may be one of a few at my future company in the STEM-oriented departments. Likewise, many of my classmates and other women who are also pursuing a STEM degree feel the same exact way. Many of us struggle mentally on a day to day basis, and the importance of mental health should be brought up more consistently amongst us women in STEM.

As a little girl, I saw many of the women around me in careers fields such as education, fashion, and business if they were not a housewife. First off, my mother was a housewife and is currently a teacher, my Grandma was a teacher turned substitute teacher, housewife, and personal seamstress, and my Aunt April works in Marketing/Sales when she is not tending to my younger cousins lively lives. Other than that, I did not see women go into many other industries. That was, until I watched Reese Witherspoon play Elle Woods go to Harvard Law School and become a lawyer in the movie Legally Blonde. Seeing Elle Woods attack the standards that mostly men go into careers to become lawyers decades later than the notorious Ruth Bader Ginsburg was such an inspiration. Both Elle Woods and Ruth Bader Ginsburg alike faced the gender standards put in front of them and achieved their career dreams. The stories of both of these woman show that any woman can achieve her career goals, no matter how farfetched they may seem. When looking at inspirational women achieving their dreams and beginning to bring women into male-dominated fields, one of the most undercooked elements of it all is mental health. Mental health is such an important topic to bring up when discussing women going into STEM fields. Elle Woods and Ruth Bader Ginsburg both faced a lot of mental health struggles, even though they are quite overlooked to their fictional and nonfictional achievements.

When being one of a few women in a classroom, it can be hard to feel as if your voice even matters, which can then stem into any woman’s mentality and self worth. During my Junior year of high school, I sat in an overcrowded Pre Calculus classroom which was taught by one of my favorite high school teachers, Mr. Greiling, at a desk that was supposed to be for storage. That class was also filled with a lot of boys who were wicked smart and also a year behind me in terms of their school year. Many times in that classroom, I felt extremely intimidated by my male counterparts within my Pre Calculus class, as they always seemed to know the answers a lot quicker than I did and sometimes when I did not really seem to. One of the moments that stood out to me the most in that Pre Calculus class is when my teacher asked a question and called on me over the multiple male counterparts of mine that also had their hands held high and proud and allowed me to confidently and correctly answer it. I remember the boys in my class were not only shocked that I knew the answer, but impressed as a lot of them rarely saw a girl their age who regularly did her makeup and wear bright pink dresses know Pre Calculus just as well as they did. At the same time, knowing that Mr. Greiling not only believed in me, but gave me the courage to participate in the class just as much as the rest of my classmates was truly a moment and gift that I will never forget. For the rest of my Junior year, I continued to remain an active student in Mr. Greiling’s class and into my Senior year as I chose to take Calculus with him as well. Unfortunately, moments like the one’s that I had in Mr. Greiling’s class may not be as positive for my female counterparts going into STEM fields. I consider myself very blessed to have a great teacher like Mr. Greiling!

While I do attend an all-women’s college, I still face the struggles mentally that come with being a woman in STEM. Although I have not really had this experience during my undergraduate days of college, I do know that many women that feel as if they’re one in a million in their classes. For instance, two of my female Meredith College professors in my Math and Computer Science Department have mentioned how they were one of just a few women in their major-related classes in college. Similarly, many math, engineering, and computer science-oriented college major classes and careers are extremely male-dominated even to this day. With this domination of men within these career fields comes a lot of uncertainty, anxiety, and insecurities from us women. Not only do many of us feel as if we may lack the potential that we truly do have, but we also worry that we may be favored over our male counterparts simply because of our own gender – something that should be overlooked. Having this knowledge, many of us women may feel as if we are left in a ditch when striving to pursue our own career goals and passions.

Along with being one in a few, us women also face mental health struggles when it comes to the rigor of our courses. Initially, I was worried about even declaring a Mathematics major or even a STEM major. My hesitation to declare a STEM major was simply because I did not believe that I could handle the rigorous course load that comes with it. When I was in high school, I really enjoyed my English, History, Fashion, Marketing, and Math classes, though I had to work the hardest in Math than the rest. Knowing that I had to put more work into my Math courses, I never wanted to major in something that required a lot more work than a Fashion or Marketing degree – subjects that I enjoyed just as much but were much easier for me to acquire. Once I got to college, my worries immediately settled in about declaring any STEM-oriented major as I experienced a lot more stress and anxiety from my Math and Computer Science classes. At that point I thought that if I get so much anxiety over one class, then there was NO WAY that I could take up to four a semester. I remember crying to my mother on the phone about how scared I was to even consider being a STEM major, despite her great encouragement for me to do just that! I know that many of my classmates have also felt the same way, too.

As a woman in STEM, it is an extreme challenge to believe in yourself. This is something that I am still working through, being someone that struggles with anxiety and occasional depression. In my classes, I used to feel super intimidated even by some of my classmates, as we are all wicked smart, strong, and hardworking women striving to break barriers within this world. This intimidation that I felt left me terrified to even think of becoming a STEM major. There were many days that I felt as if I did not fit in in with the other girls in my Math and Computer Science Department. Sometimes, I thought I was not as smart as the rest of my classmates or even hardworking, especially being someone who deals with mental health struggles of her own. It was not until classmates and friend of mine pointed out my strengths which she saw in me in the classroom to a professor of ours that I truly started to believe in myself. That week, in fact, I actually declared my major in Math along with my minor in Statistics, where many of the amazing ladies in my department were super excited that I *finally* declared it. While I did not need their affirmation, it is always nice to know that others believe in you, in order to get the push to strive to believe in yourself, too. Like myself, I know that many women feel terrified to stand their own ground when they feel intimidated by others – it can be terrifying and that is OKAY. My mental health was definitely at a standpoint during those days and it will always constantly be tested through the years. At the same time, it is for the better, as I will only grow from it all!

Through it all, I could not have gotten through being a woman in a STEM major without great friends who are also in STEM majors. Beginning with the Spring semester of my Sophomore year of college, I started to host study groups with my classmates. Before each test, I would meet with some of my friends in my Linear Algebra class to study together. I did the same with my friend Ava regularly in our Statistics class. As I got into my Junior year, I became really close with one of my best friends through our mutual friends: Julia. Julia and I to this day text practically daily and always discuss about being women in STEM and as Math majors. I also began to make closer bonds with the amazing ladies in my department, including: Sydney, Sarah M, Maggie, Gianna, Asiyah, Sarah H, Nermina, Val, Abi, and Ava. At the same time, I became super close with my fellow Public Health major friend Shivani, who is one of my closest friends that I can truly rely on at any given time. Through these interactions, I was able to truly see that each of us experience our own mental health struggles through being women in STEM majors who are aspiring to go into STEM careers. We are all dealing with the same things! Many of us struggle with the heavy work load that comes with our majors. At the same time, we feel stressed, anxious, and super sleep deprived from all that we are doing. However, we are in it together and we have each other’s support, and that is a beautiful thing!

While I am aspiring to break the mold to go into a career in STEM, I also aspire to one day become a mother (both children and dogs), wife, hostess, seamstress (like my Grandma), and PTO President. I also want to start my own small Wedding Planning Business, though it will mainly be for friends and family as of right now, as I have a passion for weddings and the entire planning process of them. Even though I have aspirations that are closer to the home than other women in and out of my department at school, my goals are just as valid and exciting as others’. With these dreams of mine, I still want to maintain a career in STEM to some extent while tending to things that may be closer to my home. Over the past few years, I have struggled mentally to realize that these are my true dreams. I have worked so hard and continue to work hard to acquire a Bachelors of Arts in Mathematics with three STEM minors and in the next two years a Masters of some sorts in Analytics, and I worried that my desires for the future would not serve my degrees any justice. However, they will, as I will be best serving myself in the future not only as a mother but as a woman in STEM who will be able to provide for her family and future children’s educations (potentially in STEM!). I believe that strong women take all forms even in the STEM world, whether it be from home with their families or taking the world by storm from their office or across the globe.

STEM majors are NOT easy to tackle, and being a women whose aspiring to go into a career in STEM is a struggle mentally and emotionally. Remember that it is OKAY not to be OKAY all of the time. This was a hard pill for me to swallow, especially when I was in the process of struggling to declare my Math major. At the same time, choosing to major in Math with minors in Data Science, Website Development, and Statistics was one of the best decisions that I could have made for myself and my future. Not only will I be able to achieve the many dreams that I have set for myself, but I will be able to do it knowing my own self worth, despite the many mental setbacks that I have faced and will continue to face.

XOXO – Katie <3

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