Dealing with Humanity

Our Obstacles Are Diverse: As A Woman in STEM, Sexism Wasn’t My First Struggle

The social barrier of gender discrimination was not one of the ones that I had to overcome to get into school. My family never gave me a clear message about the roles of women, and I was lucky to not have the imagination to know that some men thought women were less intelligent.

Rather, it was economics and mental health that barred my way into university.

Growing up in a fundamental christian missionary family, in which wealth was repulsed for the sake of devotion, I got used to relative lack (though we were still vastly privileged in comparison to many of those we worked with in Brazil). I didn’t mind not being able to afford some school trips and sports teams after we moved to Canada and my parents had difficulty keeping good work. But I didn’t realize the potential position of limitation that we were in.

When my parents divorced, left the faith and moved away I suddenly had to become my own adult. Living on my own at sixteen, I did not have much saved from my part time jobs. My days at school and interactions with peers were tainted with background worries that I wouldn’t be able to afford electricity. Now my homework was put off to spend time learning how to cook and try to get dental coverage.

What would I do after high school? How could I imagine university from the small room in a country trailer that I rented?

Luckily I had ignorance and was easily influenced. The teacher that I looked up to the most (my art teacher), told me that I might be good at mechanical engineering. I had no idea what it was but I agreed to do it.

I knew that I couldn’t afford to go into school right away so after graduating high school I planned to work for a year before beginning. Knowing more about the financial burdens of secondary school than I did, my parents sat me down and told me they didn’t think I could afford my dream of university.

But it was my ladder out of a suffocating room. I had to try for it.

So I created an “if/then” brainstorm map presentation. Saying all of the different ways that I would try to afford university. I worked at a factory for the higher pay, and ended up falling in love with the mechanical engineering while I was there.

While there were months when I could barely afford food, many youthful experiences I may have missed out on, and difficult times in classes because I couldn’t afford the textbooks, I have been able to make it to my last year of mechanical engineering.

Resources: Paying For School

Yet money was not the greatest obstacle I faced. Long before I would have to buy my own supplies, I experienced a destabilizing of my reality. Dealing with early sexual abuse, and the culture shock of moving to Canada, I was overwhelmed by extreme emotions. I was on a consistent loop of suicidal ideation from grade 7 until my third year in university.

After losing my main support systems, I continued to test all other relationships with my inability to process my mental states. Emotional and explosive, I was more desperate for a life without pain than one with the luxuries of education. 

Often my economic issues and depression would ally to battle me at the same time. During that year after high school in which I was most pressed to find the funds for school, I was also the most depressed – I could not work as hard as I needed to. Reeling through grief after a friend’s suicide, I could barely afford sending $30 for flowers for his family, or to take off the full shift from work for his wake. This was a feeling of helplessness, embarrassment and guilt that I couldn’t see a way out of. I felt as if my situation was my doing, for not being able to work harder, and for being affected by the traumas of abuse. I felt seconds from homelessness, barely hanging on to the life I was living.

In my second year of university, I was informally diagnosed with severe depression and bipolar II disorder by multiple doctors, psychiatrists and therapists, I also made the dean’s list that year.

I now sit in luxury that I previously resented for seeming so out of reach. I have a safe apartment, that has a kitchen (something I spent a year without). I am in an extremely healthy and joyful relationship. My family lives close by and continue to develop their own stability in spite of continued health emergencies. With each job I have worked, my expected income has gone up so that my student debt feels manageable.

Most importantly, I have not had a depressive episode in years. My PTSD and night terrors are reducing, my physical symptoms of stress (such as heart arythmia) have mostly disappeared, and my sense of reality has stabilized. No longer do I feel disassociated to the point of panic. No longer does the uncertainty of the future cause me despair. My emotions have regulated to that of an ordinary functioning adult, I am able to digest and engage socially.

My life is more exciting and rewarding than I imagined it could be. It feels greater than the movies painted it for me when I was younger.

But I didn’t do any of it alone.

Even if the support of those closest to me was dodgy, there was always something I could reach for to help. My friend’s mom found a government program for me to get dental work done before prom, my teacher casually gave my brother and I muffins for breakfast, the school secretary kindly – but firmly – made an appointment with a counsellor for me. While walking past my job at a pizza store, my boss would give me a ride the rest of the way to school on particularly wintry days. And all along I was intellectually challenged as if nothing else was going on. In a small country high school, I was still treated the same within the classroom – showing me that my life’s issues did not need to limit my excitement for science. 

The trust of my first crazy landlord to let young kids rent his apartment was the signal that there would always be something I could do to create my life. With bits of financial support from my long distance family, and the commitment of my brother to explore our mental experiences, I began to grow in an environment of lack.

During my most depressive season, my friends took me to the hospital, gave me help line phone numbers, and took endless walks with me to test the seriousness of my mood.

And then there was the institutional support. I received grants and scholarships that put steps in the stairway that I could not otherwise climb. Though it can be a frustrating system, my university and the government worked to make sure that there were at least some forms of economic and mental health support (even if they were difficult to get at). Waiting on waiting lists to see a counsellor was worth it for the life changing work that it has done. The free therapy groups and financial literacy courses that I have taken have given me a greater education in life than I could have gotten alone.

My greatest accomplishment has been to actively fight for my own mental health support while still succeeding academically in a difficult program.

Resources: Dealing With Depression

We cannot judge how hard it has been for each other to get where we are.

When talking about group discrimination we often want to find out who has had it the worst. In response to complaints of sexism, men will tell me about the mental health issues they statistically face – and I empathize. But too often we assume that the only difficulty facing women in science is sexism, when in reality we have had just as many complicated journeys as the men along side us. 

After working my way out of such a hopeless past I am shocked to find there are still those who would question my ability to be where I am. There are still those who would argue about my biologically inherent deficits, and that my success can only be attributed to the political correctness of my university. How absurd! How unendingly frustrating and impossibly disrespectful to have to patiently converse with men like this while a whale of overcoming and grit sit behind my every action.

Sexism is the battle that I now face – the one that I couldn’t enter until I had worked my way out of difficult economic and social worlds. But for some it is their main impossible challenge.

The barriers we each face are many, and the difficulty in overcoming them depends on our unique circumstances. I can never know what it feels like to be a man, a person  of colour or a part of the LGBTQ community. And they cannot know what it has been like to be me. Even at my worst, I have had greater privilege than some will ever get.

So in our discussions about hardships, trying to argue about the relative magnitude of our suffering is diverting and useless. Hardship is experienced in context to our lives, those with fantastic economic childhoods may still have had the feelings of suffering that I have had. And it is our job as humans to believe each other’s experiences.

By focusing on removing gender bias in STEM we cannot ignore the conversations about men’s mental health, economic inequalities and racial discrimination BUT using one of these issues to negate the other is unnecessary. 

Establishing a culture that intellectually respects women and protects their bodies does not have any negative effects on the mental health of men. I should not need to take down supports for people of colour, LGBTQ or men to get support for myself. And we can be concerned about each other’s issues at the same time. Fighting racial biases does not mean ignoring economically stunted white communities. All issues of inequality can be worked towards when we stop using one to silence the other. Religious freedom does not get priority over human rights, and the activism of one group cannot undermine the activism of another.

I want my story to show that inequalities play different roles in each of us, and they should all be fought. Our responsibility as activists is to remove the barriers facing those searching for opportunity.

I believe that it was hard for you to get where you are, and that there are many difficulties you face everyday. So what are the ways that you can act and speak to remove these difficulties for others without stopping others from doing the same with their limiters? 

May we be our own evidence that the cycles of trauma and poverty can be broken with a stubborn willingness to ask for help and try to live a life we thought we couldn’t.