Women (or the Lack of Them) in STEM

Note: this is an expansion of two comments that I made on Manboobz. [1], [2]

How it Works - credit to xkcd.

How misogyny works in the STEM fields. Credit to xkcd. Shared under xkcd’s Creative Commons license.

As a student studying for a STEM-field related major and aiming for a STEM career, I’m a member of a small group of women who are pursuing something science or technology related. A study done in Illinois shows that about about 39.5% of women coming out of Illinois high school are attempting majors in STEM (see page 8 for the table). Women make up to less than a quarter of the workforce in STEM (sauce), and in many STEM fields (engineering mostly), women make up less than 10% of the workforce.

(For the record, I’m doing biochem, aiming for either medicine or biotechnology, haven’t decided which one yet. I can totally see myself doing biotechnology for the rest of my life, genetically modifying organisms for GOOD. Yes, anti-GMO people, I know you hate them and I know you think that they’ll kill you or whatever. You’ll probably hate me for thinking of pursuing biotech. But GMOs are perfectly safe. However, that’s a different subject, possibly a topic for a future post. Stay tuned.)

The gender disparity between men and women in STEM is so wide that numerous groups have gotten together to try to discuss and resolve the issue. After all, women are a little more than half the world, and they are half of the Internet (rules 28-30 of the Internet be damned! Misogyny on the Internet will be another topic.). And yet in the US, 18% of computer science degrees are awarded to women, 22% of software engineers are female, and 6% of CEOs in the top 100 tech companies are women. And while I’m not actually studying for a major in computer technology, this difference is so huge that when a female programmer shows up, she is often-times the token female, and is often the target of misogyny and unwanted sexual harassment and advances. It’s such a big problem in Linux that someone had to write up an entire page on the do’s and don’t’s of encouraging new female programmers.

But why? Why does this disparity exist? And why are women often discouraged from majoring in STEM?

Part of the problem might stem from the experiences described by the tech journalist mother whose daughter was discouraged from majoring and making a career in computer programming, despite the fact that the mother had encouraged her and the fact that the daughter in question was very knowledgeable, extremely bright, and well connected. In all likelihood, she would have succeeded and done well. But because of misogyny and harassment that went either unnoticed or ignored by the male computer programming teacher, she refused to take more programming classes in one semester, and no amount of encouragement will ever get her to come back.

Women are the subject of sexual harassment and of violent threats. But why?

Is it because these men do not see women as equals? After all, for most of human history, women were seen as inferiors, as property, as vessels for one-sided sexy times, as a dependent, as like a child. Women are objectified, their bodies and the promise of sex being used to sell things from cars to body wash for men (Axe commercials anyone?). The Bible is highly misogynistic, with passages punishing women for losing their virginity, passages declaring her unclean during her period and after pregnancy, passages requiring her to marry her rapist if he refuses to pay her virgin price (but it’s only rape if she cried out while she was being raped of course!).

Laws were in place for much of the 18th and 19th century denying married women the right to her own property, the right to vote, the right to keep her wages. She was expected to get married, and expected to take care of the home and care for babies. She was in the care of her father, and then her husband, and finally her sons; she never really got a chance to do things herself. Only if there were no men around (and if she was single) was she able to achieve some semblance of independence.

Women were denied entry to numerous institutions, denied access to many careers, especially science-related fields such as medicine. Elizabeth Blackwell was only accepted into medical school in the US by a fluke of chance — the dean took her acceptance up for a vote, and if one male student (the male being superfluous at the time) objected, she would have been denied entry. The male students there thought it a joke and unanimously voted to accept her. If a woman achieved, she was not given credit, hidden by all of the male faces that accepted the awards and the acclaim for her work (see: Rosalind Franklin). Recognition for her work might take decades to surface; Franklin’s work was acknowledged as hers 25 years later, and that was buried under Watson’s descriptions of his negative regard for her in his book The Double Helix. By then she was dead.

Women were thought to be too stupid, too irrational, too emotional, too fragile, and hence all of the sexism and misogyny and restrictions regarding her agency made sense. Women are seen as bodies, sex objects, and hence all of the men feel entitled to treat her as a potential date/sex buddy and not as a coworker. If she refuses, it’s a insult to him and she must be a bitch!

Unfortunately, this attitude STILL exists today. And why? Because they were (and still are by many misogynists) seen as inferior and as sex objects.

And unfortunately this is the reason why women are often discouraged from STEM.

Throughout history, if women did something of note, her contributions were hidden and credit was given to the men. If she failed, she represented all women, the face of inferiority and stupidity as shown in the xkcd comic that opens this post.

In science and history classes, we hear a large amount of amazing men who contributed to science and technology, making civilization better. We know of Crick and Watson, Charles Darwin, Ernest Rutherford, Mendel, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, etc. But where are the women? Where is Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper, Lise Meitner, Emmy Noether, and others?

The one female scientist that everyone knows about is Marie Curie. But is she the only person that we should be looking up to as women wanting to work in STEM?

I think not.

We can totally do better in encouraging women to take on STEM.

Give us Lovelace, give us Hopper, Meitner, Noether. Give us encouragement. Treat us as people, as equals working for the same goal. Give us credit for our work. Recognize the women who worked in (and improved) STEM throughout history. Treat us as individuals with distinct personalities, not as representatives of an entire monolithic group. Treat us as your fellow coworkers, not as your potential date.

And leave the misogyny and the sexist attitudes at home.

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