SySTEMic Sexism in Science: Dismantling the Master’s Tools

The past few months in my feminism class, taught by Ileana Jiménez, have been some of the most influential. Now as a better-educated woman of color, I now have the tools necessary to critique the society in which I live. Over the course of the class, we read the essay “The Master’s Tools” by Audre Lorde. The famous line, “The master’s tools, will never dismantle the masters’ house” has clarified my understanding of the way we live our lives and has taught me to be more than what society wants me to be. Forms of the master’s tools such as internalized racism and sexism have affected me and my chances of success, especially in the field of engineering.


I competed at a First Tech Challenge Competition (FTC)  competition. Notice how many boys are in my group (photo credit: LREI Flickr)


The probability of a woman sticking to engineering and getting a bachelor’s degree is very slim. According to MIT, only 20% of all engineering degrees awarded are to women. This number drops when women get to the workforce, only 13% of the engineering workforce is women. This is because of the manipulative effects the master’s tools have on women in science and maths.

As a woman who has grown up interested in science and maths, I have felt the pressure to be perfect. To be considered smart in a male-dominated field as a woman, means to be perfect, and the work that is done must look effortless; anything less than perfect is immediately associated with being a woman, as we are seen as not capable of doing science. I have dealt with this systemic violence first hand.

For a few years, I was the only girl in a class of eight in middle school. Any sort of group work that was done in that class I had to do on my own because the boys would never stop to ask me if I understood the material. This became critical to my learning and led to me dropping the class. But the reality of being the only girl in a class is very likely, and sadly something I need to get comfortable with if I want to succeed.

Coming from a privileged household and a private school education I know that I am far better off than most, yet the expensive and progressive education that I get are not walls that protect me from the master’s tools. The education that I am able to afford does nothing when it comes to my experiences in the classroom.

This year, I am in a Modern Physics class, taught by Kelly O’Shea who has been a huge part of my growth as a female student here at LREI. I understand that I am very privileged to have a woman science teacher, yet this does not protect me from the master’s tools that affect my learning. Out of the 13 people who have signed up to take this class, only 3 are young women, which is 23% of the class. This number is too close to the MIT statistic of 20%.

Whenever I mention the topics of the class, such as special relativity, to other girls, they are immediately intimidated by the complex theories and are shocked that I, as a woman, am interested in such advanced science. One specific time this happened was when I was on a college tour. I had two tour guides, one male, and one female. They asked each of the students what they were interested in, to help cater the tour to the visiting students. It was a pretty even mix of men and women. Most of the girls said psychology or biology, and the guys said chemistry or business.

By the time it was my turn, I said Physics and Robotics. The tour guides were shocked, and the female tour guide commented, “Wow, that’s intense.” Not only did that comment encourage me not to apply to that school, I realized that the master’s tools are always at work and they will become even more active the older I get. There is a high probability that I will be one of the few women of color in any engineering class I take in my higher education. 

There have been steps toward change, and I have been privileged enough to be a part of one. This past summer, I was a part of the Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program, a free program that lets female-identifying, rising high school juniors and seniors, learn the beginnings of code. I was able to talk to successful women,  learn from engineering students, and grow with other amazing juniors and seniors who have become more confident as female coders.

My feminism class at our assembly on the International Day on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (photo credit: Ileana Jimenez)

But empowering women through programs like these is only half the battle. We need to continue the process of educating the privileged because discrimination and violence exist in spaces where people are unaware of how the masters’ tools manipulate us; we internalize them and perpetuate them. Recently, my feminism class and I presented to the rest of the high school on what it means to be a feminist. We discussed topics such as Title IX, toxic masculinity, and sexual harassment.

By bringing awareness to these topics, people will be more conscious of their actions and end the perpetuation of oppression. Education is the next step forward in creating equity in science and maths for women and girls.

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