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A non-binary undergraduate student’s guide to navigating STEM

By Dianne Miranda, September 27 2023—

In early August of this year, I volunteered to be a group lead for a three-day mathematics camp through the Department of Mathematics and Statistics here at the University of Calgary. One of the girls in my group asked me why the camp was called Girls Excel in Math and if boys would be able to also attend the camp. 

Trying to explain the complexities of the truth that women and those outside of the binary are underrepresented to an eleven-year-old girl who wants to pursue her passion in mathematics proved to be more difficult than I thought. There are many nuances in institutional policies and practices, and both unconscious and conscious factors that affect one’s university experience as a woman or a gender-diverse person. The explanation of the camp as an initiative to encourage girls like her does not completely encompass and demonstrate the vast challenges and unique realities of being the minority in a heavily male-dominated field. 

At its core, the camp was to not only expose them to content they typically would not see in their classrooms but also to expose them to role models who identify as women, trans or gender-diverse. Representation matters. Young girls and youth of all backgrounds need to understand that there are opportunities and spaces that could be taken up. We are here and they too can be.

Constantly being in a classroom where women and gender-diverse people make up a small portion of the class sheds light on the reality that despite numerous efforts to achieve a sense of equity, diversity and inclusion in the field, the system continuously upholds an environment that can discourage or to an even greater extent —  deter students to pursue a field in STEM through unwelcoming and non-inclusive academic and professional spaces. This can occur through interpersonal dynamics between professors, mentors, teaching assistants and coursemates and the environment — the buildings of the campus, in which we physically exist, and the policies and practices in place. 

It is an inconvenient truth that these spaces do not always participate in many of the basic, easily attainable actions to ensure that our needs are met. To have to always be aware of when and where I will have access to gender-neutral washrooms has a small but direct impact on my ability to learn without any distractions. Often there does not exist trans-inclusive design in university forms and websites or even anti-discriminatory policies. There is also a lack of clear information available to trans and non-binary students to help them access resources and support on campus. For instance, it was only recently that the university adopted an inclusive name change policy. 

It is incredibly important to realize that change and progress can happen at any level. Normalizing the sharing of preferred pronouns, when there is enough comfort created to be able to share and using gender-neutral terms to address someone can go a long way. We are paving these braver spaces for people to not have to fight so hard to exist in and prove that we belong here. 

Continuously educating oneself on issues surrounding stereotypes, biases and discrimination happening within the field academically and professionally and listening to stories of people’s realities is the first step of many. Through this, you may find yourself building a community of both mentors and peers that can become your braver space. It is critical that you make these connections and networks to find those who will advocate with and alongside you. There are so many who are willing to learn and be that extra pillar of support in whatever capacity or ability they possess, whether it may be being the person you can talk to or simply having a quiet place to just be. 

Get involved — whether it be in research, workshops and conferences or through educational outreach programs and community building by being a part of student-led clubs. Like anyone else, you have insightful perspectives and contributions to be made in your chosen field. Be both an advocate and a presence and continue breaking barriers. By being as visible as you can be — a woman, trans or gender-diverse student within your field — you have the potential to inspire others to be more confident in their own.

Lastly, take care of yourself. The weight of constantly coming out and deciding when it is safe to do so as well as the want and need to correct someone is heavy and does not always have to be carried. You deserve the same respect that is to be given to everyone else and you deserve to be referred to as how you identify. It is okay, however, to not always take the path where you may have to sacrifice your mental and emotional health. People will make assumptions and we may not be able to break free from each systemic and institutional barrier, so ensuring that we have the time and space where we can take a break is equally important as our other concentrated efforts to increase awareness, inclusion and diversity.

This article is a part of our Voices section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet editorial board.

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