As one of the top universities in the nation, it comes to nobody’s surprise that Badgers are academically competitive. Steep curves can end up harming students more than they help, research grants can be difficult to come by, and scholarships are constantly battled over.
While this internal ambition is one of the many reasons the University of Wisconsin - Madison thrives academically, it also has a tendency to cause rifts among students, particularly the already marginalized community of women.
As women, we oftentimes feel inherently silenced — as if our intellect and commentary are best left unheard, our credibility frequently questioned — but female academic standouts, particularly in male-heavy STEM fields, may find themselves trying to out-smart one another, to determine the “smartest” female student in any given class.
This is wildly counterproductive. Sure, GPAs may be skewed by one student’s stellar exam grade, and professors may favor those who are consistently offering their novel insights in class, but in the grand scheme of things, we ladies should be supporting one another.
Collaboration breeds innovation, and feeling safe and supported in a space (especially a male-dominated one) can metaphorically shake loose the anxiety surrounding speaking up in a lecture hall or offering a counterargument to another student’s statement.
Kacee Hostetler, a junior studying industrial engineering spoke about her experience as a woman in STEM. “When one of my STEM classes has more females than I expected, rather than being encouraged, I find myself feeling like I need to compete with the other women and be smarter than them. I feel like I’m no longer special for being one of the few ‘women in engineering’ because there are more than I thought,” Hostetler said.
“I find myself feeding into stereotypes about gender and appearance. I’ll always pick the nerdier looking guys to ask for help or study with before a woman, which is pretty messed up.”
Having women represented among academic faculty can also make a big difference for the confidence of gender minority students.
For example, I had not had a single female economics professor up until this semester, despite the fact that the field of agricultural and development economics is largely focused on empowering women to join the workforce, become literate and ultimately take on a much less submissive role in greater society.
And to be frank, listening to a bunch of old white men preach about the importance of women getting out of domestic life, oftentimes muddled with misogynistic tropes, is far less convincing than a woman making such arguments.
Thus, it can be overwhelming — as a first-year student or otherwise — navigating a campus that tends to exhibit properties reflective of a massively patriarchal society.
Luckily, there are various organizations and campaigns across our campus to help mitigate such phenomena, and feed into the notion of women empowering women.
A notable women-in-academia organization is the Women in Science & Engineering, or WISE, learning community in Elizabeth Waters Residence Hall.
Housing first-year, woman-identifying students in fields ranging from statistics and economics to biomedical engi- neering and nursing, WISE hopes to instill a support system for these students early on, with the intent of easing the transition to college and building confidence in and outside of the classroom.
Suzanne Swift, WISE’s Program Coordinator, is a strong believer in the power of shared experience.
“There’s this team of cheer- leaders surrounding you and supporting you, and enabling you to be your best self and not feel isolated,” said Swift. “There’s plenty of STEM fields with high representations of women, but it is still hard — being a first year student is hard!”
Looking further than just the borders of this campus, or even this country, is the student chapter of the non-profit organization She’s the First. It is the grave reality that being an educated and respected woman, not just in the United States but internationally, is, “the exception, not the norm,” as STF would say.
As the largest chapter in the nation, UW-Madison’s She’s the First dedicates their cause to support girls’ education in low-income countries. The organization takes a holistic approach in tackling the world-wide issue of girls being treated as second to boys.
By partnering with local organizations in eleven countries, including India, Peru and Ethiopia, She’s the First’s mission ensures that girls everywhere finish all 12 years of their primary education. Education, although not the the great equalizer as some may say, is a large step in promoting fairness in opportunity.
Internationally, women are able to go on and educate their communities, become less likely to marry early and gain leadership positions to educate future generations of women.
UW sophomore and the chapter’s Vice President of Fundraising Priyanka Ramanathan is truly passionate about STF’s mission. By sponsoring a total of 40 girls, or scholars as the organization refers to them, Priyanka emphasizes the rewarding nature of being a part of the lives and education of girls on an international scale.
“After I joined She’s the First, it opened my eyes to the disparities among women across the world,” Ramanathan said. “Not just in education, but in the things we may take for granted as privileged women, such as access to menstrual products or physical wellbeing.”
Non-profit organizations that have as immense an impact as She’s the First allow us to realize the immense amount of privilege we as women have by attending such a well-respected research university. Because of this opportunity of higher education we’ve been given, it is vital that we support and empower other women in our respective majors, rather than compete with our fellow classmates.
By supporting the effort to succeed in education, we can create an environment that is conducive to positivity and equality, both abroad and domestically, and especially on campus.
So we ask you, regardless of gender, to empower your fellow Badgers. Go out of your way to collaborate with your peers and learn to value their strengths alongside your own. Remember that we are, for a lack of a less-cheesy phrase, all in this together, and can benefit greatly from serving as each other’s allies.
Sam is a senior studying journalism, with certificates in development economics and environmental studies, Kavitha is a junior studying political science and sociology, with a certificate in educational policy. What are your thoughts on in-class competition along gender lines? Do you think women on campus can do better in terms of sup- porting one another? Send all your thoughts and comments to email@example.com.