Towards Feminization: Defining the women experience in STEM


Among the films that were shown in the 42nd Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) last December, it was the teen comedy Vince, Kath, and James that tackled the issues of sexism in the workplace head-on. In the film, Vince and Kath are both engineering students and are co-interns for an engineering company.

In one scene, as they arrive in the office, the management had so matter-of-factly designated different roles for male and female interns. The male interns were allowed to work on-site with the machines and equipment while the female interns were confined to the office, dealing with documents and company transactions.


In numbers

Everywhere now we see women transcend their roles in the workplace. They form a large part of the social capital, so it’s not a surprise that there are already more women who are registered professionals (1.27 million) than men (609 thousand) in the latest 2013 survey. But according to Assistant Secretary G.H. Ambat, Philippine representative in the ASEAN STEM forum in Peru last 2016, there is an estimated 721,000 Filipino science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) professionals with more men than women. Although there is a positive trend in the women in the workforce, there are still gaping holes in certain fields and industries.

In the Philippines, others may ask, what is the relevance of feminism in the workplace? Other than women getting paid justly, being treated with respect, and awarded for their achievements., current statistics also suggest that women are more and more becoming undeterred when it comes to pursuing STEM fields. There has been an increasing trend for women to engage in technical jobs (in 2013, 496 million) whose numbers approach that of men (in 2013, 500 million).

Regardless, the current thrusts in social justice and the statistics that back this should not discount  the ongoing struggle that has got them here, especially in traditionally male-dominated fields like STEM. Women in such fields have to actively pushed back against a world that has often told them of  their role and place.

Women Stem (L) - Renzo Salvacion copy


From their experiences

Prejudices such as this are often deeply rooted, and imparted onto people early on. Even before a woman decides to embark upon a career in the STEM fields, it is not uncommon for people to dissuade her from even considering it.

Cris Villanueva (V, MEM), former president of DLSU’s chapter of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, recalls never having been outright discouraged from taking her course, but was on the receiving end of a good amount of questioning.

Bakit yan yung course na kinuha mo? Parang panglalaki,” was often the response to her choice to take up a predominantly male engineering course. (Why did you choose that course? It’s for boys.) She cites that attitudes like this often result in women having to explain themselves and their decisions, which she considers is one of the hardest parts of starting out as a female STEM professional.  

Another hurdle that hits women in STEM fields before they even reach the workplace is the need to constantly prove themselves. Villanueva recounts times her professors have told her, “Hayaan mo na yung mga lalaki gumawa niyan, (Let the boys do the work,)” with her knowing she’d be perfectly capable of completing the tasks on her own.

Justine Basco (IV, ECE), the current college president of the Engineering College Government (ECG), disagrees strongly with that assumption, stating that she’d like to believe her fellow female officers earned their ranks because they have proven that they’re worthy for the position.

Basco shares a time when she was campaigning door-to-door during the last election season, and a professor commented she’d be more suited to compete at a pageant than for a student government position. She adds that people doubted her capacity to take on the positíon, saying that she’d only won because she was a girl.


Carrying on in the workplace

This double standard is just as apparent in the professional world. While being part of the minority as a female STEM student can be a struggle all on its own, being a female professional in the field deals with similar matters.

Luna Cruz-Javier, founder of Altitude Games, shares, “Being a woman in a male-dominated industry almost 15 years ago had its difficulties. Most of the time, your co-workers weren’t politically correct; you just had to take the jokes in stride.”

She recalls a time back in 2013 when she was promoting her first game. They had a booth at an all-boys high school and her co-workers had left her at the booth. One of the students approached her and asked if she was a sales lady. She politely corrected them. “They couldn’t believe it, as if a woman could not have made a PC role-playing game!”

On the other hand, Ambe Tierro, the senior managing director of Accenture Technology, says that she did not feel discrimination at work when she started in her career, but that it came much after. “The hurdles came later as I started to work with international clients and teams when the disparate number of women in Technology became apparent.”

She further adds, “The hurdles manifested in small things – being out of place and struggling to speak up in meetings and conferences where the attendees are mostly men, juggling personal and family issues, and feeling uncomfortable about disclosing them to male managers and male clients.”

Furthermore, in a workplace that has inherently and historically been seen as divisive than inclusive, there is a vital need for more scientists, engineers, and mathematicians to push the country forward. Even with the air of accommodation and politeness that some women conduct, they have all proved to be unwavering in spite of this.

Tierro says,  “It [is] very easy for anyone to lose self-esteem and once you let yourself get defeated in small things, it may have an impact on key career milestones like promotions and getting passed up for progressive roles.”

Justine embodies this belief by saying, “Everything I get into, I use as an opportunity to further improve on my own, instead of conforming to what people think I should be.”

Cruz-Javier also asserts that more than ever, we must go beyond the jagged and biased notion that being a woman and a student and a professional in STEM are mutually exclusive. “We should be judged on the quality of our work, regardless of what our gender is. That’s how I treat anyone who’s worked with or for me, as well,” she adds.


Empowerment and leadership

On the brighter side, Cruz-Javier  shares that the field has since then evolved, and as the number of female game developers grew, these instances of insensitivity and prejudice dwindled. Indeed, the government, particularly the Department of Education, at the present moment is making noticeable strides in trying to close the gender gap in STEM courses in the Philippines.

They hope that with the addition of the K-12 curriculum, senior high schools all over the country will have a more intensive training for young boys and girls to choose whether they want to pursue STEM or other courses of their preference.

The strongest propeller for these efforts, nevertheless, is still by getting to the women themselves. Mrs. Ambe of Accenture talks about how a woman must learn to create a space for herself in these particular fields.

“First, be bold. Don’t be afraid to speak up or to ask questions—even if you are the only female in the room. You should turn stumbling blocks into stepping stones, use diversity to stand out,” she shares.

“Second, actively seek out female role models and network with them.  Find a mentor who will coach and guide you.  When you have an opportunity, be a mentor to other women.”

“Third, choose to work in a company that has a strong inclusion and diversity culture [or] program. Starting out with a strong support system will provide you the right environment to develop yourself and maximize your potential,” she concludes.

The impact of the feminization of the workplace and college courses is not the deluge of women in various STEM fields; it is not in the act of outnumbering or outdoing, but essentially telling women that they are, after everything, free to construct better and more honest definitions of themselves.

Adrienne Rich, a prolific American poet, essayist, and radical feminist once said, “When a woman tells the truth, she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.” And that once she has instilled this belief in herself, it emanates and manifests in staggering ways.

We have seen and been inspired by strong women engineers like Justine and Cris, tech business innovators like Tierro, and creatives like Luna-Javier. And we can begin to hope in the future that the iterations and contrasts go on and on.


Krizzia Asis

By Krizzia Asis

Nadine Macalalad

By Nadine Macalalad

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