Pe’er reflects on sexism in robotics

Carmel Pe'er

Xi’an’s Famous Foods was the unofficial official post-meeting FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) team hang-out. Almost every Friday during my freshman year, we crowded into the subway, or as we called it, our “Uber XXL.” The 40 minute ride to the restaurant was filled with discussions ranging from mechanical issues with our robot to our favorite phone games. Once there, we would all squeeze into the limited seating options. I genuinely enjoyed these dinners, but as the only girl and often the youngest, I never felt fully comfortable. I was quieter than I would have been around my close friends. The boys on the team never actively bullied me for my identity, but would at times make insensitive comments.

A common joke at these dinners was that the positions women held on the robotics team leadership were fake and created so that the club appeared more diverse. Every time it was brought up, I would sink into my seat and stare at my lap. Comments like these were prevalent not just at dinners but also during meetings. They supported a feeling of indifference towards any attempts at leadership from the female seniors. For example, when the safety captain, who acted as a shop manager, would ask people to do a better job at cleaning up or suggest a safer method to complete a task, she was largely ignored by the boys on the team. These jokes and actions were normalized by many of the upperclassmen, especially those in leadership positions. 

While I had previously been warned about sexism on the team, I did not expect to enter a club whose culture was so fiercely against women in leadership. Additionally, since the boys in power chose leadership for the following years, it was easy for them to perpetuate this culture. I felt guilty for not standing up for the women on leadership every time I heard these comments, and I also knew that calling the boys out on their sexism could disqualify me from a position if my gender hadn’t already. Because of the negative culture towards women in leadership positions, I worried that I would be passed over for positions.

During my junior year, I became the first female co-captain of the FRC team. I was excited to take on this role, but I was also scared that my older male co-captain would ignore me. My freshman year had proven to me that women in leadership positions have no influence if the culture on the team is against them. In one of my first meetings with my co-captain to discuss recruitment, he mentioned how nice it was that I was a girl, because it would attract more girls to the team. I knew he was right, so I didn’t say anything, but his comment made me feel like I was chosen for this position purely because of my gender and as a token for diversity rather than for my talents and dedication. This made me insecure of my actions as co-president. I worried that my suggestions would be ignored by my co-captain, just like past women on the team. The possibility that this would then spread to the rest of the team also troubled me. If this were true, it would mean that in the past two years no progress on the team had been made and that the team environment would continue to be uncomfortable for women.  

Later on in the season, my co-captain and our advisor had a meeting about the team which I was not invited to. It was just to discuss something minor, but I knew that I should have been invited or at least notified about it. When I expressed these concerns to my co-captain, he brushed them off but agreed to invite me next time. Small moments like these continued throughout the year towards me and some of the other women on the team. They occurred relatively often, and they usually came from the same few people. It seemed as though the rest of the team was largely more accepting and welcoming towards women. Except for a few team members, the culture had shifted for the better. The cause of this shift was most likely due to a combination of many of the students who had supported a sexist culture graduating and a sharp increase in female membership. During my junior year we had almost double the number of women we had during my sophomore year.

This year, all five captains between the FRC and FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) teams are women, as well as many other leadership positions across both clubs. I think that this shows a continuation of the shift to a better environment for women on both robotics teams. I hope that this will also lead to more women joining both teams to hold leadership positions, and that they will be just as respected as their male counterparts. Having women in leadership positions will also likely lead to more underclassmen girls joining robotics teams.