Amber Phillips: Don’t judge a girl by her gender

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I have a brother named Shane, born two years, one month and eleven days before me. With Shane, I built multistory Lego houses with five tier garages for the cars we put together from spare parts and sand fortresses with fox holes for our army men to hide behind. We imagined train tracks for our Thomas and Friends that started in the living room and ended in the kitchen. In the summer, we swam, fished, built forts in the woods and took Kids in College classes together.

My dad, who stressed education since our very first set of Easy Reader books, insisted we both take at least one class every summer. I learned about the oceans, the physics of amusement park rides, forensic sciences, the magic of magnetic levitation trains and an array of chemistry and botany through my personal favorite, “The Science of Harry Potter.” These were classes designed specifically for children, who scarcely understand concepts of gender, yet boys remained the majority. Why? Already, I was out of place in this science microcosm. Looking back I have to ask myself, without an older brother introducing me to the toys meant for boys and a father who approved, would I have ended up in classes for sewing or baton twirling instead?

As it was, I became the little sister that fought to be better than the older boys, my brother in particular. Now all grown up, both my brother and I are on track to become engineers. I suppose all the Legos, train tracks and summer science camp paid off. However as I grew older, it became increasingly evident that many girls lacked the opportunities that I had. Many lacked a father or brother pushing them to keep up with the boys, to do things that weren’t societally considered to be for girls.

Now in 2015, gender stereotypes have disappeared, right? With more women than ever before holding offices and entering the STEM field, women are infiltrating every historically male category. Feminism is more potent, backed by respected popular names and gaining more momentum now than at any previous point in history.

Wrong; the stereotypes still exist. There are boundaries still in place. There are judgements passed and assumptions made about women who step up as leaders, who cross the threshold into a STEM field. I cannot help but continually ask myself, why?

Since deciding to pursue an engineering degree, I immersed myself in math and science. At a high school engineering competition, centered on building and programming an automated robot, the head judge and coordinator awarded a bonus point to any team who managed to snag a female member for the competition. He wasn’t trying to get us involved in the competition, instead he thought he was encouraging teams to take on a handicap. When our all-female team won, his comments centered on the “artistic flare” in our final presentation, adding that he expected nothing less from five females.

The sexist saga continued when I came to college. On my first day in a new research lab, where I was one of two females, the graduate student in charge of both myself and a second male student asked us to redesign the setup of the experiment we’d be performing. Redesign involved building makeshift stands for the various components, securing and arranging tubes so they wouldn’t interfere, all of which required the use of power tools, wood, screws, hammers, nuts and bolts. The male student took charge; he looked at me and said, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this.”  After his set up fell through, I replied, “Don’t worry, I’ll fix this.”

Allowing and accepting women into the workforce, the classroom, the lab and into positions of power is not enough. It is not “good enough” because it is better than it used to be. Taking the toy vacuums in the girls’ section off the shelves and replacing them with pink and purple Lego kits made for building nail salons and spas does not suffice. Offering my childhood self a “Robotics for Girls” Kids in College course as a counterpart to my brothers robotics class is not tolerable. On what grounds did that gender segregation exist? Was it based on evidence suggesting lesser intelligence in females? Was it so the girls could build a robot to carry their shopping bags?

Society automatically gives men a place in STEM fields, teaching them from childhood to build, create and imagine. However women are automatically given the chance to earn a spot outside their age-old gender role of homemaker. Men are handed respect and expected not to lose it. Women are expected to earn respect, then work to keep it. Quite simply, expectations shouldn’t be different at all.

Amber Phillips is a second-year student.