I hope you underestimate me.
I am no stranger to the underdog. This is not the first time that I will be underestimated. It is also, unfortunately, not the last. Rather, it is just another moment of deja vu.
I am also not alone in this. As a woman in STEM, this is a part of my professional experience. It is an unfortunate part of all of our professional experiences. Much like words written in stone, I will be written off frequently in my career. Passed over. Passed up. Described as too inexperienced, not what we’re looking for, or just not a good fit. Looked past for a less qualified coworker or peer. It just wasn’t the right time. It’s just not the plan we had in mind for you. These vague words get to define what doors do not open for me.
I do not always fit neatly into the traditional mold of what ‘engineer’ or what ‘ideal candidate’ might be. I was taught this in childhood, as I was steered away from playing with ‘boy toys’ and told to pick up a doll instead. I was taught this in school, when teachers questioned my love for math. When I told my high school guidance counselor that I wanted to be an engineer, did he encourage me? Was he delighted? No. The first word out of his mouth:
Did he ask the boys in my class that too?
Nevertheless, I persisted. I graduated high school at the top of my class, I got accepted into engineering school, I proved them all wrong. And yet, I was met with the same resistance in college. I wish it was an exaggeration when I say that I had professors who literally did know acknowledge the existence of the women in their classes. Who literally did not hear us speak. I’ll never forget the moment my advisor, who had taken a bet on me, told me that so many of his male colleagues refuse to work with women students. In that moment, ringing in my ears:
Once again, I persisted. I graduated cum laude. I was finally able to place my hands on a piece of paper that said my name next to Bachelor of Science in Engineering. I earned a master’s degree. I earned a master’s degree with a 4.0. There was something to be said about me, about what I have accomplished. I did it. My name, next to Master of Science. Still, they came for me. The naysayers. Those who doubted me, and doubted these new words next to my name.
While these naysayers might sometimes be right in their evaluations of my experience or fit, what they fail to get right is the measure of my audacity. My audacity in forging a path ahead for myself. My audacity in accomplishing my goals, in seeing a way to achieve my vision. What they fail to account for is that I will be successful in spite of them.
We spend all of this time telling young girls that they should be interested in STEM. That they can grow up to be scientists, engineers, or doctors. We tell them things like “Girl Power!” and “The Future is Female!”. But, what we really fail to prepare them for is that when they enter this world, the odds will be stacked against them. They will be met by the same barriers. They will face the same lack of opportunity. The same question of “Why?” will echo in their heads all throughout their career. It will echo in their head as they get their first internship. As they walk across the stage to receive their master’s degree. As they file their first patent. As they land their first job. And over time, an answer will come to them:
“Because I can, and because I belong here.”
We prepare young girls to articulate and then follow their dreams. But, this alone is not enough. What we need to prepare them for instead, is how to overcome these barriers. How to maintain their audacity, how to preserve in the face of adversity. The unfortunate reality is that these barriers are systemic, and it will take a long journey of progress and change to remove them. This system was not built for us, rather, it was built to keep us out. So, we must learn to persevere. And, we must take the first steps in learning how to be underestimated.