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Women in STEM: SAF Student Interview

SAF Alumni Xiang Li is among a new generation of women in science. While studying abroad, she opened up about the challenges of being a female in a male-dominated field.

8 March 2018

SAF Alumni Xiang Li is among a new generation of women in science. While studying abroad, she opened up about the challenges of being a female in a male-dominated field.

Xiang Li in Edinburgh at Arthur's Seat
Xiang Li at Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh

Seated in a university classroom one day, watching professors assess candidates for a lab manager position, Xiang Li noted something peculiar. When evaluating equals, she said, professors of both sexes time and again awarded higher marks to male applicants than to female ones. "I’m a female student studying engineering and I find something strange in this research environment," Li said. She’s not alone.

For women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) gender discrimination remains a stubbornly persistent constant across the traditionally male-dominated disciplines. In the United States, male and female science professors alike offer women jobs and mentoring less often and when they do they pay them less, according to a 2012 study by Yale University scientists. In Scotland, where Li was studying at the University of Edinburgh, the Royal Society of Edinburgh President Sir John Arbuthnott says such discrimination is discouraging.

“The majority of women with qualifications in STEM subjects do not work in STEM areas. This is in marked contrast to men," he wrote this year in a report. "The consequence is a serious loss across the whole economy not just in Scotland but throughout the UK as well as many other European countries. Indeed employers in key sectors are reporting large impending shortages of people with STEM  qualifications.”

Li says the weight of lower expectations being levied upon her and women like her can crush their confidence. For example, she recalls the time when a professor at her home university tasked the class with building circuit boards. Many of the boys finished first.

"The teacher gave girls extra points to make up for their [perceived] shortage of ability in the major," Li says. "I think this phenomenon reflects the prejudice between females and males in science, because if teachers think girls should do worse than boys then girls will think their bad performance in practical courses is inborn."

Li, however, refuses to be discouraged. Powerful role models and career coaching offer help and hope. With dreams of earning a doctorate and establishing a successful scientific career, Li is one of many ambitious young women who are setting about to subvert the status quo. As a visiting student, she took on gender inequality one leadership role at a time, starting with managing her own insecurities.

“This is my first time living abroad,” she said. “You can imagine how afraid I feel because of the language problem, cultural differences and new teaching models and so on.” Still, Li refused to let fear keep her from speaking up.

“If I were a professor, I would encourage female students to raise their hands to express opinions and not sit behind others in class,” she said. "Taking risks, choosing growth, challenging ourselves and asking for promotions—with smiles on our faces, of course—are all important elements of managing a career. Do not wait for power to be offered.”

by Erika Woodward

Xiang Li in Edinburgh at Arthur's Seat in Spring_2015
Xiang Li in Edinburgh at Arthur's Seat in Spring_2015

Women in STEM: SAF

Student Interview
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