Fighting for Space

Women fighting for space in male-dominated areas, like these members of Congress, face countless burdens but play a key role in the struggle for equal rights.

Seeing Kamala Harris, Kirstin Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren, Tulsi Gabbard, and Marianne Williamson all vying  with different platforms to be the Democratic nominee for president of the United States; Republican Martha McSally and Democrat Kyrsten Sinema squaring up as the first two women to represent Arizona in the U.S. Senate; and center-left Nancy Pelosi disagreeing with “The Squad” of newly minted progressive female congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley makes me overjoyed that we live in an age so enlightened that women in politics can take multiple shapes and fight for different things.

It was not long ago that one woman running for president let alone six was unthinkable,  and that culture made it easier to dismiss a female politician as unlikeable, radical, or just plain strange. But today we have female politicians of various ages, ethnicities, backgrounds, and viewpoints. They all exist together and take up space, which makes it that much harder to dismiss female politicians writ large. 

I know that increasing women’s representation is no panacea: Just as electing Barack Obama president didn’t catapult us into a post-racial society, elevating more women to positions of power will not suddenly create a world without sexism. But while representation may not be everything, I have come to realize that it truly means something. 

I recently spoke on a Women in STEM panel at Visitas, Harvard’s program for newly admitted students. During the hour-long discussion, the other panelists and I fielded questions on everything from course selection to women’s affinity groups on campus, and shared our experiences as women in STEM. Toward the end, someone asked whether we felt that, at Harvard, we had ever been treated differently for being women. She went on to explain that she wanted to concentrate in mathematics or engineering, but was concerned by the dearth of women in these fields at Harvard; women make up only 34 percent of undergraduates at the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and the mathematics department currently has just one female senior professor, only the second in its history.

When it was my turn to answer, I struggled to synthesize my thoughts into a cohesive, “panel-worthy” soundbite. I wanted to tell her yes, a thousand times yes from an uncomfortable incident when a male graduate teaching fellow answered my technical question with an offer to give me a hug if I was worried, to the tangible discomfort I’ve felt at being the only woman in the room at research and extracurricular meetings, to the number of times I’ve been talked over or outright ignored at office hours, my identity as a woman is inextricably linked to my experiences as a Harvard student. 

But I also wanted to tell her about the diverse, inspiring, powerful communities I have found at Harvard by joining STEM organizations for women like Harvard Women in Computer Science, and by fighting to cultivate diversity in spaces historically lacking in women through initiatives like the HPR’s Women’s Community Dinner.

I wanted to tell her that none of these problems are uniquely Harvard problems, nor are they uniquely STEM problems. In fact, they are not even uniquely women problems. Women, like people of color, people whose sexual and gender identities sit outside the cisgender, heterosexual assumptions, and fundamentally anyone who does not conform with classical notions of what power looks like, are underrepresented in and have been historically excluded from most positions of power. This reality exists not only in academia but also in politics, industry, and everything in between but we have the opportunity to change this.

I do not remember my exact answer on the panel, though I hope I covered most of the points above. What I do remember is ending with a sentiment that I myself feel conflicted about: If you don’t pursue your academic dreams because you see a systemic underrepresentation of your identity, then how will that systemic underrepresentation ever change?

If there is one thing that my time at Harvard has shown me, it is that we can change it. In the span of my undergraduate career alone, my fellow students and I have made massive strides in campus groups we care about, and I have seen the national conversation shift in ways I could never have dreamed of.

What was once unimaginable has become reality: The HPR’s executive board, on which I was once the only woman, now has an even gender ratio. The state of Arizona is represented for the first time ever by two women one of whom is the first openly bisexual person in the Senate. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, recently announced that he would no longer speak on all-male panels. Six women, including two women of color, are running for president. 

We are just beginning to see what diverse, representative leadership looks like. This is not to say that these changes were easy, or that the fight is over. It is just the opposite. But I am deeply inspired when I remember that every single one of these changes started with women fighting for space in spaces that were not built for them.

Image Credit: flickr/Nancy Pelosi

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