Where Are All the Women?

Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

This may sound crazy, but for a brief time, I pictured MIT’s Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) department as only women.

Yes, this happened.

Due to a weirdly warped golden recall of MIT’s Visit Weekend, I somehow only remember the Saturday Pancake Breakfast for women in EECS: A hundred women crammed in a conference room sharing maple syrup and shy smiles.

Online, my mental image of MIT came from Jean Yang and her fearless blog posts about graduate school that convinced me to make MIT my top choice. I knew logically that it couldn’t be all female, but female graduate students and professors appeared everywhere I looked.

Then I arrived on campus, and reality kicked in. In my first class at MIT, I arrived 10 minutes early to a lecture hall, performing my very best eager beaver, only to watch wave upon wave of male students enter behind me. I was confused and curious. Where were the women?

The numbers themselves are stark: 27% female PhD students in EECS while the EECS female faculty squeaks past 21%. MIT even sits ahead of the curve as only 20% of EECS PhD recipients in America are women (NSF).

I want to be clear that I personally have had an excellent experience as a woman in tech. Both in industry in my two years at Dropbox and now as a PhD student at MIT, I have thrived under an abundance of supportive peers and invested mentors. No sexist comments, no condescension, no implications I got into MIT only because of my gender. As Lea Veroupoints out, the positive experiences can often get lost when only the negative are highlighted.

Also relevant, however, is the onslaught of negative stories from friends: Nightmares of belittlement, harassment, and exclusion, both at MIT and in graduate programs across the country. Sexism is rarely malicious, but misguided institutional policies and internalized stereotypes can do real damage. Retention rates for female PhD students in EECS lag behind those of male students, and each step of the pipeline from preschool to professor leaks students.

What can we possibly do to create a climate that nurtures researchers of all shapes and sizes?

As co-president of GW6, the graduate women group in EECS (known as Course 6), I have worked to provide a space for women to grow and learn together. At first, I selfishly wanted a group of female friends for myself, but after hearing the same desires echoed throughout the cohort, I knew an organization would have larger reach and more resources.

Working with the faculty, administration, and the local tech industry, GW6 holds monthly events ranging from mentorship breakfasts to book club discussions to kayaking. The professional development programming helps to chart a path forward after MIT while social events provide a forum to bond with other graduate students facing similar problems, working through larger topics like genius stereotype, imposter syndrome, and the confidence gap.

In hindsight, it is impressive the EECS administration and female graduate students care enough about the gender imbalance to produce such an unintentionally misleading display on visit weekend.

Despite my initial feelings of betrayal, I can forgive MIT for its enthusiasm in highlighting a community of female researchers in a field where there are so few. It is from these women that I can be vulnerable in the face of the challenges of PhD research and also strong to encourage resilience in others.

Life is not entirely sunlight-filled pancake breakfasts, or your personal choice of comfort food, but I’m not going to stop working for that.