Being A Young Woman on the Robotics Team

I love math and science and I don’t think I’d be who I am now without it. While I may not know how to code or have taken AP Physics, I appreciate these fields immensely. However, there have been instances where I know that my intersections of identity have shaped my experiences doing what I love.

This has become very clear since I joined my school’s robotics team this year. I am in the minority in terms of gender and race on this team: I’m one of only four girls (out of twelve people total) and am West Indian. Both of these identities have made this experience challenging.

For example, when I’d talk to people about taking both Algebra and Geometry during my freshman year so I would be in Pre-Calc/Trig in tenth grade, most responses would go along the lines of “Well yeah, it’s because you’re Indian.” Furthermore, this stereotype of being “Indian” (which is funny because I don't identify as "Indian" at all) and being good at math and science was even said to my math class by my math teacher as he threw some glances in my direction.

These experiences of underrepresentation and stereotyping were never clearer to me, however, than when I joined my high school's robotics team this year. Not only did I face obstacles because of my identity, but I also admittedly had no prior knowledge about building robots whatsoever. However, I knew I couldn’t let those things stop me from pursuing my interest in robotics, and I constantly had to gather up courage to openly say that I didn’t understand something despite stereotypes, or have someone include me in conversations.

When we attended our first qualifiers for FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, a high school robotics competition), on January 31st, it really shocked me to see the difference between the number of boys and girls on all teams. I knew that the majority of people on our team were cisgendered males, but when I looked around the room, it surprised me to see that although there were girls there, the number of boys far surpassed them. Additionally, there was an all girls team, Bionica, that particularly interested me, but when I asked someone about them, I got “They only qualify every year because they’re an all-girls team.”

After the qualifiers, we received news that we qualified to participate in the NYC Championships. I decided that while there I wanted to talk to other girls about their experiences about being on their robotics teams.

I talked to two members from the Dalton team, one of whom said she liked her experience and that, “I don’t think [being a girl on a robotics team] is negative for me. It’s really great because being a girl makes you stand out which in some ways can be a positive thing.”

Many girls said that having more guys on the team didn’t affect them and that they didn’t feel inferior, but I also met girls who disagreed, like one who said:

“Being a girl and being a part of a robotics team is really challenging. It’s not enough for you to fight against other people that are competing against you, but you also have to fight against society and what they’re thinking about you. For us, we have double difficulties because we are not just girls but we are Latino as well. If you are Latino, you begin at the floor and you have to climb that ladder to get to other people so when you’re Latino, a girl, and you want to be an engineer, you are down at the bottom of the ground.”
Additionally, one girl on Team RoboPandas said how she walked into the robotics room, which was full of guys, and asked her mentor if she was able to join during her sophomore year. However, he was busy and because she felt so intimidated and felt like she didn’t belong she didn’t join until her junior year.

When talking to a team member from Bionica about experiences with gender, she said that when their team had moved onto the Super Regionals last year, someone from their high school told them that they only moved on because they were girls and it made the FTC look good.

One girl from Team Islandbots said:

“Sometimes I feel like I’m not being listened to as much and I find myself being told to order pizza, or being told to design t-shirts. It’s annoying but I learn how to deal with it. Sometimes they won’t trust my judgment or they’ll ask someone else right after they’ve asked me just to see if it's right. If I tell someone I do robotics there’s an element of surprise and they’re like, ‘Wow that must be really interesting.’ It’s not exactly mal-intended but you definitely feel that difference.”
When I asked people what advice they'd give to girls and young women interested in STEM, they all unsurprisingly said the same thing: Don’t be discouraged or intimidated. If you are passionate about STEM, then go for it, and don’t be afraid to prove yourself because you are just as capable as anyone else is.

I think the words of my lovely biology teacher, Margaret Magee, sum up how young women should approach STEM well:

“If you love something, go after it. Even if you're one of the few women, it doesn't mean you can't or that you shouldn't pursue your dream. You could be a role model or an inspiration for someone else and it will hopefully make you feel happy and fulfilled to be doing what you love. Just because it's hard doesn't mean you shouldn't do it.”

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Vicki Soogrim
WMC Fbomb Editorial Board Member
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