2018 Women in Engineering Empowerment Essay – Alice Bian

Last semester, I took a course on the modern-day boy culture crisis. I’ve always been aware that many boys struggle to balance hypermasculinity and vulnerability, but hearing aloud the experiences of my male peers really humanized their internal conflicts. I realized then that the root of gender inequality and social norms was that we simply do not understand what challenges the other side faces.

The same can be said in a technological setting. I started freshman year wanting to stick exclusively around my female peers because I liked being able to relate to them. I joined Penn’s Women in Computer Science (WiCS) External Relations Board, hosting social events, career panels, and startup fairs. This past February, I even organized a dinner and Tech Talk with Facebook for 80 women, featuring the Head of Oculus Analytics Jeremy Clover as a speaker. And yet, I realize now that my outreach efforts, all catered toward girls. addressed only half the battle; the other half is getting men to understand just how hard being a minority in the technical field is. As a returning member of the WiCS board next year, my biggest goal is to host events for men that shed light on the female perspective—how uncomfortable it is to talk about sexual harassment with a male manager, how annoying it is to need a pad change in the middle of a meeting, and how incredibly crucial maternity leave is for a mother’s and child’s wellbeing.

And so what? How does involving men help increase representation? Let me explain with an anecdote: ​While visiting family in China last summer, a young white man approached me and asked in accented Mandarin if I could speak the language with him. I was taken aback at first, but his friendly smile and genuine interest led me to accept. As our hour-long conversation progressed into a riveting discussion of Chinese history and American government, I realized​—​a bit sadly​—​that had this scenario taken place in America, I might not have reacted so willingly, perhaps brushing off his initial attempts to converse as a sign of racist mocking. When put into the reverse role, where I was a member of the majority and he the minority, I understood just how much control over the situation I had. A simple shake of my head would have left our conversation unspoken, and he a little more discouraged from speaking to the next Chinese person.

In the STEM field, men undoubtedly make up the vast majority. That means that they, like myself last summer, have the capacity to create a supportive environment for their female counterparts. If I do not feel the need to censor myself around my male peers, to speak on “taboo” topics like periods and sexual harassment, then I would be so much more at ease in my field. ​Being around girls I can relate to has been extremely relieving, but I hope to now expand this support system to include more of the other gender.