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Female students in predominantly male majors want to be heard

In male-dominated majors, female students reflect on their experiences with being in the minority.
Image by Ava Weinreis
Women in male-dominated fields say they have to work harder.

Some female students at the University of Minnesota who major in predominantly male programs said they have to work harder to be heard compared to their male counterparts.

During class discussions and group projects, some female students said they have to stand up for themselves more, although not all female students agree.

Third-year philosophy major Elif Hidayet said since male students comprise the majority of her philosophy classes, she had to learn how to fight back against her classmates who may not give her a chance to share her ideas.

“It’s an argumentative major, but one of the first things you learn how to argue is not holding your own thoughts, but arguing in a way that people will take you seriously,” Hidayet said.

Hidayet said to be heard, persistence is a must in her male-dominated classes.

“Sometimes I feel like I have to talk over some of the men in my classes or in groups that I work in just so I can ensure that my voice is heard too,” Hidayet said. “It’s not the best feeling, to be honest, you sometimes have to push it a little further to make your voice heard.”

Lauren Toensing, a fifth-year majoring in philosophy, said spending a lot of time in philosophy-related spaces has taught her how to make her voice heard in a male-dominated space.

“I do feel more like I’m in an arena fighting, especially when there are white men in discussions,” Toensing said. “Even though I feel like I’m pretty comfortable, I still don’t really like it.”

Toensing said that although the philosophy department is diverse, a lot of the philosophical works students study are written by men. However, there are efforts by the University to focus on women in philosophy, according to Toensing, which has helped her visualize her future career in philosophy.

“I was lucky to have a really good friend, another girl, in philosophy,” Toensing said. “I lived with her for a few years, so I was able to have a lot of really incredible, fruitful, philosophical conversations with her where I didn’t have to fight with the need to assert yourself.”

Hidayet said solidarity with other female classmates keeps her mind away from the difficulties of trying to stand up for herself in her classes, especially after a tough class of struggling to voice her opinion.

“Moving the conversation away from the group setting and how frustrating that’s been to something a bit more small talk-ish and personal has been really helpful,” Hidayet said. “It creates some form of solidarity of like, ‘I’m here for you, and we can do things together.’”

Candace Heitner, a third-year chemical engineering student, said although women are the minority in her major, she has been able to make connections with students in her major and the male students she has befriended have allowed her to state her opinions.

Heitner has not had any negative experiences being a woman in her major but said male students tend to strongly express their thoughts.

“There might be someone who is speaking the loudest, trying to get noticed the most or trying to aggressively get their questions answered or speak the most to the TA or the professor,” Heitner said. “I usually let it be because I don’t want to overstep anyone else. I always want to make sure that whoever was waiting to get a question answered the longest gets their question answered first.”

Being in an environment where students tend to talk over one another and disregard others’ opinions takes a toll, Hidayet said.
“It just kind of sticks with you throughout the day, and sometimes it’s the first thing I complain about when I get home,” Hidayet said. “It’s on the forefront of your brain, and it makes it a little difficult to focus on whatever else you have to do during the day.”

Toensing said there is a tendency for male students to feel more comfortable talking over professors. She has not seen it too frequently in her classes, but there are times when she feels frustrated about professors being challenged by male students in class.

“It’s especially frustrating when people are just talking to feel smart and not necessarily because they have something to say,” Toensing said. “It boils down to a massive insecurity where we all feel a little defensive of the fact that what we are doing is meaningful.”

Heitner has only had one female professor throughout her time in the major. She said being a woman in chemical engineering gives her a need to prove herself, especially when entering the workforce.

“There are instances where it might make me question if I’m wanted or if people want to hear my opinion on something,” Heitner said. “As you go further back in time, fewer women were graduating in the field, so what I’m used to now of being in the minority is going to get way more drastic once I actually take on a job.”

Despite the difficulties, Toensing said she encourages her friends to treat the environment as a meaningful debate.

“There’s a lot of disagreement and it will always be that way,” Toensing said. “If you’re not coming into it with that maturity and with that intention, it’s very easy to turn it into a fight.”

Hidayet said although there are rough days, finding one’s footing within philosophy makes studying it worthwhile and allows someone to develop skills to succeed in the workplace.

“You will find people that are very nice and are very caring, and you will find a way to move through it and push through it and it won’t be absolutely horrible,” Hidayet said.

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  • M
    Nov 30, 2023 at 6:03 am

    Interesting article! I am perturbed by the use of the word “allowed,” in the following sentence: “…and the male students she has befriended have allowed her to state her opinions.” No woman needs to be allowed to do anything; we are inherently free. The formatting of this sentence implies that the male students in the situation referenced are somehow automatically ruling the entire environment of discussion and that a woman’s opinion is implicitly secondary. Ironically it perpetuates the exact difficulty the article is drawing attention to — the desire to move beyond or evolve past this patriarchal thinking.