In the month of April, robotics teams participate in competitions such as FIRST in St. Louis and Vex in Anaheim. I met Kate Azar last summer and heard her talk enthusiastically about FIRST robotics. While her experience was positive, she realized that young women struggle to gain respect as competitors and team members. I asked her to share her insights below.
Last year, I graduated high school after three years on the Robettes, an all-girls FIRST Robotics Competition team from St. Paul, Minnesota. Amidst metal shavings and solder droplets, I learned quickly that boys in engineering would assume my ignorance and downplay my success. At the same time, I discovered that these same males desperately wanted more female makers to participate.
What a huge disconnect! The disrespect, the misogyny, the labels — the various forms of bias were expressed within the very group trying to fight them.
Before my first competition, my teammates told me that boys were out to get me: I would receive no respect as a female in engineering, and I had to “go into competition prepared.” It was ominous, really. While I mostly shook it off, a part of me listened, and, knowing no better, I showed up at my first competition prepared for battle.
The battle never came. For me. I saw males disparaging my teammates, and it generally came down to the fact that the girls, brilliant as they were, didn’t assert themselves as competent — yet they always cried sexism. There I was, ready to verbally spar with anyone who got in my way, and my defenses were totally unnecessary.
After consulting multiple young women in FIRST Robotics, I found that my experience was far from normal. Two members of Fish in the Boat, FIRST Tech Challenge World Champions of 2013, are quoted below.
“Being the only female in a STEM class or program sucks. It’s discouraging, it’s disheartening, [and] it made me feel like I was flat out not good enough to want to go into STEM … [H]ow many other girls don’t feel good enough because the guys in the class are discriminatory, make uncomfortable comments, are sexist, and in one case flat out tell you they don’t think you should be in the class?” —Erin Mitchell
“While my good memories outweigh the sexist ones, it’s horrible at competitions when you’re trying to discuss strategy with a guy on a team, and he totally disregards anything you have to say — because you’re a girl.” —Crystal Huynh
With 40% of females leaving engineering just after entering the field, it’s clear that those experiences add up. So why, then, was mine different? The issue runs deeper than simple finger pointing. A slap on the wrist “because it’s the boys’ fault” won’t fix anything.
When there are 50 people on a robotics team, 48 male and two female, if one male has a terrible attitude and no technical ability, 47 counterexamples exist to validate his gender’s skill. If one female suffers the same, she spoils 50% of the data pool. And it happens. As a mentor once told me, “it’s human nature to stereotype.”
Is there a solution? Surely, females must be confident in their ability to perform, and they must display that confidence — or they will never receive respect. As stated by Madeleine Logeais, 2014 FIRST Dean’s List Winner, “Expectation translates to invitation.” When a girl enters a situation guarded, others will perceive it as a lack of confidence in her own ability. (Similarly, boys can be overconfident in their ability, yet it can be driven also by the same underlying insecurity.)
After that first competition, my experience in robotics shifted dramatically. Because I joined the team as a high school sophomore, rather than as a freshman, I brought a new perspective to my team, and I re-evaluated a situation others had not questioned. What I found surprised me. Now, I enter competition openly, asserting my intelligence in a friendly way, and have had few poor experiences dealing with prejudice.
My advice to girls: Be clever, friendly, and assertive in equal measure. Be makers.
My advice to boys is the same. However, know that your words and actions can diminish, if not undermine, female participation, which will ultimately make you, your team, and the fields of engineering and robotics less successful.
Let’s improve how we work together, getting to know people as individuals and learning not just how to build robots but how to build more capable teams based on mutual respect.