In my junior year of college, I had to take an analytical chemistry laboratory course. We mostly did titrations, which is the addition of acid to the base to reach an equilibrium point in order to do some calculations. Sounds fun, right? Now, do this same procedure 12 times every week. That was my life.
Our very first experiment was an identification; a classic in the world of chem labs. We were given an unknown acid and told to figure out its mass percentage in order to find its identity. I spent about two hours on this lab, determined to get everything right. In reality, I thought everything was going wrong. My trials were taking way too long because I had diluted my solution too far, so it took about twice as much base to reach the endpoint. I swirled and swirled my mixture, begging it to turn pink to indicate the end of the trial. Every time I saw a flash of pink, my hopes were briefly lifted, only to be crushed again when the solution turned clear a few seconds later. I was absolutely convinced that I had just ruined my grade and my standing within the class for the rest of the semester.
At the end of the lab, we would sit together and crunch the numbers to see if we were correct with our procedure. Sometimes this took even longer than the experiment itself. I sat down and did my calculations, completely unsure if I was going to be right or wrong. Once I had my answer, I gave my results to my professor. He looked at the paper with confusion. This was it. This was the moment where he would tell me I was the worst chemistry student he had ever seen. He then went to his list of unknowns to consult. I could feel the heat rising in my cheeks. Then he came back.
“You were off by about one-thousandth of a percent,” he said. “You hit the nail on the head on your first try.”
I could finally breathe again. All of my worst fears had dissipated. I wasn’t the worst chemist on the planet.
While this was a good moment, it was what happened afterwards that made me confused and angry. My professor had told the rest of the chemistry department about my success. You would think this would be flattering, but it turned out to be the opposite. When the other professors would see me, they would make a comment about the experiment in a condescending tone. Yes, they were giving praise, but it didn’t feel genuine. It felt like they were forced to tell me that I did a good job rather than being impressed by my near disaster of an experiment.
I’m not the only woman who has felt this lack of enthusiasm for their work. Women are constantly forced to justify their work and prove to society that they are worthy of praise and appreciation. If one of the male students in my class had achieved the same results, there may not have been as much excitement about it. Because I am a woman, and further a woman who is good at science, I am a spectacle.
The chemistry department at my college was overwhelmingly male. It was already a pretty small department, and it featured one single female professor. Whenever I had to give a presentation to the department, I faced a sea of men. Whenever I was unsure of a concept or had a question, I faced a sea of men. When I was having an incredibly debilitating episode of anxiety during finals week, I faced a sea of men. I didn’t feel comfortable telling them about how hard everything was. I couldn’t explain to them that I was upset because I was up all night crying about the fight my boyfriend and I just had.
As women, we are expected to take what is given to us and find a way to make it work. We are not expected to be ambitious. When I told people that I wanted to be a chemistry major, they gave me funny looks. I heard all about how hard it would be, and how I may not make it. None of my male friends heard this. They were encouraged to follow their dreams. Why wasn’t I given the same enthusiasm?
We live in a world where when women succeed, it is met with criticism and shock, not reward and thanks. Because I got such a great result on that one lab, I felt the pressure of the entire department to replicate these results. I was incredibly hard on myself every time I didn’t get a perfect result. It’s not fair to anyone to have this kind of pressure at such a young and vulnerable age. College should be the time to learn and grow and decide what your true passion is, not be condemned for doing something well.
No girl should feel as if she is any less important than the males that surround her, especially within the sciences. She should feel smart, capable, and just as determined as anyone else in that room.