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CTRL, ALT, DLT Sexism from Robotics

Emily Yu

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Five pages. Five. This article began as five full pages worth of all the instances of sexism I’ve heard of, seen or experienced in robotics at school in one bullet-pointed list. Blatant or implied, institutional or isolated, these bullet points make up the worst things about the club I love and have worked so hard to build. The only technical differences between our two robotics teams, FIRST® Tech Challenge (FTC) and FIRST® Robotics Challenge (FRC), are in the requirements for the robot and the team’s size; however, seven out of eight members of leadership and 14 out of 26 members of FTC are girls. FRC, in contrast, has only two confirmed female members out of around 35. This is not a casual coincidence.

As many strides as our school has taken to create a diverse and inclusive environment, the fact remains that sexism has tarnished my experience in the robotics program. When a couple of my veteran female FTC teammates and I were contemplating moving out to FRC last year, Ms. Screen, our coach, sat us down for an honest discussion about the sexism that we may face. She was worried that if only one of us were to go to FRC, we might have difficulty time getting the same amount of time working directly with the robot than we had on FTC. I know that she was only trying to help us make the best decision possible for ourselves because she cares about us, but whether or not to move as a group is not a decision that we should need to be asked to make. Boys aren’t asked to make that kind of decision and have the privilege of being able to choose what’s best for them on their own without have to think of anyone else. I appreciated the realness of the talk so much, but it saddened me that Ms. Screen, one of the strongest people I know, was concerned that she could not protect us from institutional sexism.

I sometimes get the feeling that I am not considered equally capable or taken as seriously as my male peers. I’ve had a teacher presume that the work I presented to him was done by a boy, despite there being no reason whatsoever for him to doubt that I had created it. I’ve had a boy in a leadership position ignore my extremely valid concerns about the lack of safety protocol that he was using to perform a dangerous task, and he only listened to reason once other boys stepped in and expressed similar worries. I don’t believe that either is a misogynistic or inherently bad person, but that does not mean that they were not acting off of the biases that they and most of us are raised with.

Sexism in our robotics program can be eradicated. We can try to fix the problem by completing difficult, but ultimately doable, tasks: raising female students to recognize their capabilities in STEM and teaching all members of the school community to be conscious of their internal biases. It is our responsibility as a community to become aware of our actions and the impact they may have on others, and the only true way to eliminate sexism in our school is to teach ourselves not to discriminate. But while the burden of ending sexism should always fall on the perpetrators and never on the women hurt by it, we must also take interim measures to raise girls to believe that they are capable of succeeding in STEM. One of the best things that ever happened to me and to gender dynamics in the Upper Division robotics program was MD Girls Robotics, founded by my friend and teammate, Nisha Sahgal, when we were in seventh grade. Her asking me was the only reason I got involved in robotics. I had enjoyed building Lego structures, learning basic computer science principles from my best friend’s mother, and making programs on Scratch for fun, but I never thought I’d ever be good enough to do it outside of just messing around on rainy days, let alone in school. Girls Robotics has already proven itself to work, as eight out of fourteen female members of FTC are Girls Robotics alums. The Lower Division’s summer camp class for female students in grades K-5 in chemistry, physics, and ecology is another excellent way to get girls involved in STEM. As a more long-term solution, one of my proposed outreach initiatives for FTC this year is to start a Girls Robotics team or program in the Lower Division to introduce girls to robotics at an even younger age, so that they grow up believing that a STEM career is possible. This will hopefully help solve the issue of gender imbalances in UD Robotics as they grow older.

If you are dealing with sexism, talk to someone about it. Remember that incidents of sexism exist on a spectrum, from the very blatant to intangible institutional bias. Even if you’re not sure if it’s sexism, or if you’re sure that the person didn’t mean it “that way,” approach someone you trust–-if it feels wrong, it is wrong. Talk to your club advisor, teacher, or any other person in authority: they are on your side and can take measures to help you. If you feel comfortable doing so, talk to the person involved in the incident– many times, people who say or do sexist things don’t even realize that they did something hurtful, and discussing it can be good for both parties. I can’t say that we’ll always get it right or never do anything sexist again, but I believe that with time and constant action we can make this school the welcoming and safe place that it should be.

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Horace Mann's Weekly Newspaper Since 1903
CTRL, ALT, DLT Sexism from Robotics