My Story of Gender Identity and Empowerment in Engineering

I noticed the gap as early as middle school, when I took my first Robotics class. But I didn’t feel or realize it until high-school, when I was one of 6 girls in a class of 25 boys. It felt like gym class; where a girl purposely sits out and doesn’t even try to throw the ball because she knows she will never be as good as a boy when it comes to sports.

In high school, I couldn’t be oblivious like I was in middle school. I was constantly aware of the irreconcilable social circumstance of being me, a woman, and pursuing a career in STEM. I was conscious of the lack of women and how that implied that we are worse at engineering. I felt inferior; I felt like I didn’t belong, and what’s worse, I felt like everyone knew it. Feeling that everyone knew I was a phony, I couldn’t ask any questions or get help because that would only further prove that I didn’t belong. I was stuck in a cycle and I couldn’t get better.

I sat myself out, knowing that I wasn’t good enough and me trying wasn’t worth the embarrassment. In my head, boys were naturally better programmers just like they were naturally better at sports. I thought femininity was inferior. That’s what my American upbringing told me and above all that’s what my Ukrainian culture and Russian community raised me to believe. And it’s what the tech world verified for me.

Having internalized my inferiority, I felt uncomfortable embracing my feminine side during the Girls Who Code summer program that I did in 2017. I resisted time after time. I laughed in my head as everyone chanted song lyrics, and I had a look of disbelief and annoyance when I was asked to chant along. I didn’t understand how any of these girls at my program could wear frilly dresses, floral prints, or crop tops and become programmers. Clothing has always been a form of expression for my gender identity, and in order for me to become a programmer I had to reject my femininity.

To me, femininity and tech were antonyms. I thought that the only way to succeed in tech was to embrace its male culture. At my worst times, I truly believed that the only way for me to be an engineer was to be a man, to hide my body, hide my femininity under oversized t-shirts, act like a man, think like a man, and be like a man. I changed my entire personality. I suppressed the enthusiastic and bubbly me, for fear that guys would consider it childish. Instead, I became terse, assertive, and, on occasion, harsh. I figured this was what it would take for me to be one of the top dogs in the two male dominated spheres that I wanted to pursue: business and engineering.

After going to such an extreme emotionally and physically, it was only in the last month of 11th grade, when it was time to buy summer clothing, that I realized how much I missed being a woman. I had forgotten how much I loved shopping, trying on clothes, and feeling beautiful. And I didn’t want to hide anymore; I wanted to feel sexy in the clothing I wore, and I wanted the world to see me and see how good I felt.

That same summer I did a program called LaunchX, during which students built the foundations for a company over the span of a month. While there, I was one of four girls who had STEM experience and the only to have mechanical engineering experience. The atmosphere of the program focused on students’ unique abilities and the value they add.

I soon realized that being a female mechanical engineer was the value I was bringing to the program. I was beginning to love where my value was coming from. I loved it because it was the result of the years of hard work and challenges that it took to acquire it. I earned my value. Seeing how respected my skills made me among my male peers at the program, I wholeheartedly accepted being both a woman and an engineer.

This small acceptance is what propelled me to participate in all female hackathons or women’s programs where I began celebrating being a woman. By attending multiple events, hackathons, and programs in my senior year, I began celebrating my femininity and with that, I realized just how powerful it is. I began appreciating everything Girls Who Code still does for me and regretting that I didn’t embrace the beautiful and empowering energy of the summer program. I started questioning, do I have to be a guy to succeed? Can I be a woman and successful at the same time? I realized how much I appreciated being a feminine. I loved feeling beautiful and sexy again. I was slowly starting to love being a woman in STEM.

I embraced every bit of myself. I let my bubbly personality permeate through. I allowed myself to be excited. In fact, I loved being excited and seeing how my excitement triggered a domino effect on the people around me. To me, being a woman in STEM wasn’t about accepting male culture, it became about starting female culture that is synonymous with engineering.

While embracing my femininity, I had something to take away from my extreme experience. As a Junior, I needed to learn to be professional and concise when communicating, and my experience gave me the opportunity to do that. I toned down the level of harshness and morphed my skill into its current feminized form. I did the same with my assertiveness. I absorbed every positive skill and trait I could, to mold myself into the best me.

Now, as a student at Cornell, I realized that me being a woman in STEM, me daring to defy society, is badass and powerful. Realizing my professional and personal successes has made me accomplished and proud of myself. Above all, I am grateful to be a woman in STEM because my struggle of overcoming a societally induced gender identity is just one example of the resilience that only women are strong enough to have.

P.S. Take a look at “Purl”, a Pixar Short, that perfectly illustrates my story. It has already become my favorite of the shorts!

P.P.S. Check out my 3D-printed clothing company, @wear.alpha, on Instagram!

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