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As a sophomore studying computer science, I am not the first person to acknowledge that the coursework of the School of Engineering and Applied Science is difficult. The computer science class I took first semester last year pushed me more than any class I have ever taken. On too many regrettable nights, I have found myself in the engineering quad past midnight. While I personally have yet to pull an all-nighter, I have friends who have done so multiple times in one week.

Engineers have a strong academic reputation, in part shaped by the sleepless, overworked culture we create for ourselves. Simply having the title of “engineer” seems to automatically earn the perceived respect of being someone hardworking, inventive, persistent and exceptionally intelligent. When I tell someone outside of the Engineering School I am studying computer science, almost instantly their eyes brighten up. “Wow, you must be really smart,” they say, without knowledge of my grades and implying that whatever work they are pursuing themselves does not also instantly equate with “being smart.”

Being an engineer by no means makes me — or anyone else — “smarter” than our peers in other undergraduate schools. Getting up at 5 a.m. for clinicals, dissecting sheep hearts, writing 12-page papers regularly — the assignments my peers do amaze me. I am choosing an engineering curriculum not because it is something I think I am gifted enough for, but because it is what interests me.

I receive comments like the previous one almost every time I introduce myself to another student. I understand they are intended as compliments, but over time I have wondered about what the subtext might insinuate. Why are my friends who are English majors and Nursing students not greeted with the same deserved praises? Why is there often a surprised tone? What makes me, a female engineer, receive these comments more frequently than my male peers do? Lastly, why do these comments mostly come from other women?

We are most impressed by what we think we cannot achieve ourselves. Too many times has a female told me, “I could never be an engineer; my brain doesn’t think like that.” Hearing a woman undermine her own potential does not make me feel complimented, but sad. Even worse, I often get comments questioning my own aptitude and capabilities. After telling a friend I am taking multiple computer science courses next semester, she exclaimed to me, “Why would you ever put yourself through that?”

This dialogue is a direct reflection of the still-present lack of confidence in women to pursue STEM and of the consistent portrayal of engineers as “brogrammer” men. Kate Miller, a senior studying computer science and the former president of Penn’s chapter of SWE, Society of Women Engineers, explains, “There are limited role models or templates for the path women might take. Young men and women unconsciously emulate the people who look like them on TV, in movies, etc., which is why representation of women is such a big deal in fixing the STEM talent pipeline.”

Too often, I catch myself nodding along to the difficulties other women bring up, confirming to them my rigorous curriculum and persistent stress and, in turn, unconsciously dissuading both them and myself from pursuing our interests, no matter how difficult. Constantly being reminded of strenuous schoolwork is dispiriting. This reflects in the numbers. Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science ranks in the top three undergraduate CS departments in the country; yet women tend to leave the program at twice the rate of men. A study at Stanford also found that, “women engineering students perform as well as men, but are more likely than men to switch to a different major. These women switch because they don’t believe that their skills are good enough and they don’t feel like they fit in engineering.”

Of course, more variables are at play than simply our dialogue. Elementary education, greater media representation, lack of female role models and direct discrimination are all large contributors to the gender gap in STEM fields. Still, we should adapt our conversation to focus less on what is challenging and more on making these fields accessible to all. Let’s subvert false expectations that women need superpowers or a bigger brain to study STEM because men are naturally better at technical sciences than women are.

Let’s find other ways to compliment each other and acknowledge that every major is strenuous and worthwhile in its own way.

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