You can’t be what you can’t see: The significance of representation in STEM fields

One of my favorite books of all time is Rupi Kaur’s “milk and honey.”

It’s a beautiful collection of poetry about the way she’s thrived in the face of trauma, and how she continues to approach relationships with kindness and the future with hope.

progress — Rupi Kaur

Seeing a woman of color open up about her trauma and healing inspires me to be more vulnerable with my story, and it reminds me that I’m allowed to take up space and talk about the things that matter to me. Her poetry is the reason I decided to speak at the Blank Monologues, a storytelling event for women-identifying people. Her words gave me the strength to open up about my struggles with impostor syndrome and write candidly about the ways I’ve failed on the way to finding my stride as a writer and educator.

Representation was the key to feeling like I can accomplish these things. Until I saw a brown woman writing poetry about her experiences and being seen for it, I didn’t feel like I could do the same. I needed an adviser who was a woman of color to tell me that my writing was valid and powerful before I could ever believe it. Being validated by people who look like me has given me the strength to believe in myself.

So in honor of sharing and honesty and being vulnerable, I have a story to share with you now.

Once upon a time, there was a little brown girl who used to dream of the wildest things.

She would drape her mother’s stethoscope around her neck and put it to her chest, listening intently for her tiny heartbeat. She would grab a paintbrush and her aunt’s beret and pretend to paint sunflowers like Claude Monet. She would put her stuffed animals in semicircle and read them “The Hungry Caterpillar” in her best “teacher” voice. No matter what career she imagined for herself, she knew that she’d be surrounded by the people who loved her.

But when she imagined herself becoming an engineer, her dreams seemed less real. She peeked around every corner of her life, searching for someone with her dark eyes, brown skin, and long black hair. Her eyes pleaded for something, anything, that felt like home.

So, she did the next best thing — she turned to stories. But when she opened her storybooks and later, textbooks, she never saw herself in any of the adventures. Where are the brown people in space, Middle-earth, Central Perk, King Arthur’s court, or Narnia? For the people who were featured, their skin was never as brown as hers, their lips didn’t drip with honey and kindness, and their feet had never crossed rivers and valleys at the command of soldiers. Their food wasn’t full of rich spices or the vibrant colors of poppies that peppered the mountains her grandma used to climb in Pakistan.

And what happens to dreams that aren’t lived out, that aren’t led by trailblazing women, that don’t let little brown girls see themselves as dreamers and makers? They dry out like a raisin in the sun.

This is my story — but I’m not alone in my experience.

Women of color and underrepresented minorities rarely see themselves in the pages of their storybooks, but this lack of representation extends beyond the books I read as a child. Lately, I’ve only recently come to terms with the fact that I’ve only had two professors of color during my entire college career. I’ve been looking for representation and safe spaces but have yet to find either in the classroom or in the stories I read. Stories of innovation and discovery often center around the experiences of white, middle-class men with access to education and resources. I am rarely asked to reflect on the contribution of South Asian women in the world of literature or on the ways they’ve pioneered scientific innovation.

Now, I hope to be that source of representation for other students through my work as a tutor and mentor. At the same time, I recognize my privilege as a South Asian woman. I am Pakistani and somewhat light-skinned and very privileged because both of parents attended medical school, but I posit that if I feel a sense of impostor syndrome when I take a computer science class or go in for an interview at a tech company, then what about black and Latinx individuals? First-generation college students? Immigrants? These individuals are even less likely to see their communities be positively featured in the stories being told.

This lack of representation is reflected in the dearth of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, specifically women of color. Currently, women make up 16 percent of the science and engineering (S&E) labor force, which reflects the fact that a low percentage of women earn S&E degrees at undergraduate, master’s, and PhD levels.

Stories of innovation do feature people like me; it’s time for these stories to be brought to the forefront.

Enter the Core Memory Weavers — and my mission to showcase stories otherwise untold.

The Core Memory Weavers played a significant role in the Apollo mission. During the first two decades of the Cold War, magnetic core memory was used to store and retrieve information.

Weaving matrices created by the Core Memory Weavers during the Apollo mission

An early form of computer information storage, wires were handwoven through electromagnetic rings made of ferrite. Because this work was most often performed by women of color and immigrants, the core memory weavers were nicknamed the “Little Old Ladies”.

A photo of a Core Memory Weaver

But if you read about the Apollo missions on NASA’s website, you’ll find no mention of the people who completed this work. And if you manage to find a picture of these weavers, they are rarely identified by name. This reflects the broader issue of how the history tends to focus on high-profile innovators and deemphasize forms of labor that often are seen as menial. As a result, students of color and from underrepresented minority populations struggle to see themselves represented in this kind of work.

During Spring 2018, I worked with a research group in the Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering at the University of Washington that is digging into representation and stories otherwise untold. The project is called “Designing a Radical Module for Engineering Education” and led by Daniela Rosner, a professor in the department.

One of our research meetings

The goal is to encourage middle and high school students to think about how often they see themselves represented in stories about STEM. The goal is to start conversations about what stories are often untold in their lives, and provide a space for women of color and other marginalized groups to share their own story. After all, stories are what stick, and I think they’re one of the most powerful ways to make connections.

Projecting forward

Addressing the challenge of the underrepresentation of women and people of color in STEM is complex, but exposing students to the transformative work of women and how they contribute to stories of innovation is one way to begin this conversation among future STEM professionals. Stories like that of the core memory weavers invite students to see themselves represented in stories of discovery.

In my own life, I hope to “lift while I rise” and empower other people of color to feel welcome in the spaces they inhabit, and to keep fighting for more greater inclusivity in education. This starts with advocating for stories the Core Memory Weavers and the other stories that go untold otherwise.

Part of this begins with my work as a journalist, where I strive to empower diverse identities, starting at the K-12 level. As a tutor, I support students from all walks of life in the hopes that I can help them weave a genuine and powerful story. I know that I have more work to do, but I hope that I can be a source of inspiration for another little brown girl out there.

One day, I’ll write my own story and people will read it. And maybe they’ll feel represented and empowered and supported because I am standing up and validating experiences like mine: one that can be messy but is crystallizing each day thanks to the support of others.

Here are some of the other stories I’ve written. Share your thoughts in the comments, I’d love to hear from you.

Working at a Tech Company as a Person of Color

I need more than pride flags and rainbow pins to feel represented

Creating and fostering a collaborative workplace culture

Your role models are closer than you think

I’m an interest changer — and I’m proud of it

Writer at Microsoft | Human Centered Design and Engineering Alumna | Lifting as I climb | www.aleenahansari.com