This IAP, I have been given the wonderful opportunity to work with Alpha Lumen, an NGO that provides necessary resources to underprivileged and gifted students in the city of São José dos Campos, Brazil.
For primarily political reasons, I expected that life for women would be quite different here. I was under the impression that views on gender equality would be much more traditional. Most of this thinking is because I enter Brazil in an odd political climate. Jair Bolsonaro has just been elected President of the country, and I am quite alarmed by some things he has explicitly said about women and other minorities. When interacting with the defendant of a widely publicized rape case, he said to the woman “I wouldn’t rape you because you don’t deserve it”. He has also referred to the birth of his first daughter after a string of four sons as a “moment of weakness” . My dad refers to me as his “pride and joy”, so naturally, I expected that a country in which the majority of the citizens have elected this man would be a cruel and harsh climate for me.
Of all the labels I identify with, being a female has been one I think about the most because of the social implications and inequalities that pervade throughout the world today. I spend a lot of time thinking about gender roles, and whether or not I am staying within the lines of where I am expected to be. I’ve often pondered how I “should” act in order to be respected as a female, and the answer to that is almost always different to how I would act if I were male.
Coming here, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Alpha Lumen had a considerable number of female students. The distribution, however, was skewed. On our first day at work, I met a high-school FRC (FIRST Robotics Competition) team here, and every team member I met was male. We asked about other girls on the team, and we heard that there was one. I felt like my doubts about women’s involvement in STEM and education in Brazil were being confirmed. I wondered what they thought of our group, which is composed of four females and two males. Would they question if we were a legitimate representation of MIT?
A lot changed on the second week though. We started thinking of activities for younger kids, and one of them was making slime from glue and other substances. We could not figure out the formula in time one day, so we decided revisit it the next morning. When we came into work the following day though, we saw three young girls playing with slime that they had perfected and created themselves. We were amazed (and a little ashamed of ourselves). The girls were brilliant. After discussing the cost of the materials they already used, we were trying to find a simpler, cheaper formula. The girls quickly experimented and generated yet another method without one of the most expensive ingredients. I was extremely impressed with their drive and ability to take initiative. It was clear that the staff was very proud of them too and encouraging them to do more things like this through positive reinforcement. Suddenly, I was seeing a group with strong female leaders in the school.
It brought me back to something I think about a lot: where are we losing our girls? The staff at Alpha Lumen love the girls and provide them with equal support as the boys, but why don’t I see as many older girls here continuing to pursue STEM? Even in the United States, I often see young girls excelling in math and sciences, competing equally with the boys, but as I look into high school STEM activities, they seem to be largely male-dominated. I attribute this to how society views kids as a collective group, but views adolescent women and men as two very separate groups. As a result of this divide, the expectations of women from both themselves and other people seems to sway us away from STEM subjects, while men are pushed towards them.
On the second week of our trip, we went to Instituto Tecnológico de Aeronáutica (ITA), the premiere aerospace school here. I noticed while walking around that most of the staff members whose photos were on the walls were male. At MIT, most Computer Science and Aerospace professors seems to be male as well, but the student body is composed of relatively equal numbers of males and females. I found out that 20% of students at ITA were female, but someone was quick to note that they really want more females. He assured me that programs are in place from young ages all the way up to college to encourage women to pursue STEM roles. It was refreshing to hear, but I wondered why the numbers were still so low. I noticed that the person took on a familiar defensive tone that I often hear in men when they are asked about gender roles or the wage gap. Maybe it follows that women who hear from majority male groups that they should join the field sense overcompensation, rather than a genuine welcome.
I had a chance to talk to some of the female students at ITA who told me they run their own programs in which they work with young girls, and that they hope to stand as role models for them. That last point really resonated with me. I think that one of the best things we can do for young women, and any group that has been discouraged from pursuing certain careers, is to provide them with relatable role models. Without role models, young girls who love science today, might not see the career path as one they fit into.
It was so nice to hear insights from women at ITA. They have some great ideas for stages in life that I have not thought enough about myself. They mentioned how girls are encouraged to play with dolls and more stagnant toys, while boys are playing with more brainsy and stimulating toys. I hope early-stage initiatives like this are present in the United States as well. I think that different countries do good jobs focusing on women at different ages, and they could join forces to create a more supportive transition from childhood to adolescence.
It has dawned on me that the academic equality issues women face in America and in this part of Brazil are strikingly similar. In fact, the efforts being made to address the issue are also similar. I don’t think Brazil has a lower proportion of females pursuing STEM because of a uniquely hostile climate. Most upper-level academics here seem truly dedicated to empowering women. I think they just happen to be slightly behind us on this particular process: the first step is encouraging more women to fill the roles. The next highly effective step occurs when large volumes of these successful women themselves stand as role models to young girls approaching adolescence.
We have a lot of work left to do in creating a welcoming environment for women in STEM. During my time here, I have been thrilled to see open-mindedness and strides towards combating this societal issue for women.
Sravya Bhamidipati is a member of the Graduate Class of 2019 studying Computer Science. This independent activities period, she is teaching STEM and Entrepreneurship in São José dos Campos, Brazil with MISTI Global Teaching Labs (GTL).