A Student’s Perspective on the “Women in STEM” Problem

[I wrote this post over two years ago, and while I still stand by a lot of it, my perspective has also shifted; a more recent post as of February 2016 on my thoughts/experiences re: gender diversity as an engineering student can be found here.]

hello all,

If you’re someone who is interested in feminism, you’re probably aware of the fact that STEM (that’s Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) has an issue with its gender distribution. This isn’t surprising, considering that a lot of industries do, but it’s still something worth talking about. It’s something that I think about a lot because I’m studying engineering. To be honest, when I decided what I wanted to study, I thought it wouldn’t be a big deal, even though it’s a little unusual. What’s actually the case is that people feel the need to comment on it, like they have some sort of great insight. I get a lot of variations on “Really? That’s unusual,” upon revealing my major, but one response that really bugs me is “Good! We need more women in engineering!”
On the surface, these are annoying but not objectionable. It’s true that women are underrepresented in STEM fields, there’s no debating that. But it would be weird if, upon finding out that a guy was going into engineering, I replied “Well, I’m not surprised.” Even, the comment “We need more women in engineering,” seems like a simple observation, but it’s a reflection about the way we’re thinking about women and STEM.
Because really, why do we need more women in engineering? This isn’t the arts, where your gender/sexual/cultural background offers you a unique perspective. Nothing about identifying as female makes you inherently more qualified to design machines or plan roads or what-have-you. The focus on getting women into STEM careers, at least the way we discuss it, feels more about evening out the numbers. If you want to convince women (or any other group) to go into STEM, don’t talk to them like they’re some sort of quota that needs to be arbitrarily filled. There are a lot of reasons to go into these fields: they’re challenging, they often pay well, and they play a huge role in understanding and shaping the world we live in.
And here’s the thing: the smart, talented women that are the best candidates for STEM jobs know this, but they also have a world’s worth of other options available to them. We make our career decisions as teens and young adults, and a lot of people this age range are not too attached to any specific career path. So, when given the choice between two options that you like about equally and will both support you, are you going to choose the option where you’re going to stand out all day, every day? In order to put up with that kind of nonsense, you have to feel passionate about the field. This is why so many people study things like music and theatre, despite the difficulty of succeeding commercially. If you love something, it’s worth fighting for. If you like something, not so much.
A popular suggestion for getting girls into STEM is to start young, which I definitely agree is part of the solution. As a kid, my parents put a lot of energy into hauling me out to science summer camps, taking me to museums, and encouraging me to read and watch things that were science-y. I had a couple of really good math teachers, and was even on the math team once I got to high school. All of these things had a huge influence on my interest in engineering, and stuff like this is how you get people passionate enough about math and science to want a STEM career. However, a science-loving girl who gets to her senior year of high school and sees a career in science as something that will get her underestimated and patronized may decide that it’s not such a good decision after all.
If we want to persuade women to go into STEM, we have to show that it’s a good option for them. I really like this op-ed by Emily Graslie, which makes the point that instead of trying to get more women into these fields for its own sake, it would be better to focus on making these fields more hospitable to women. Take sexual harassment seriously and stop pointing out gender unnecessarily. Ultimately, what needs to be dealt with is not simply the quantity of girls in these fields. Setting up a quota for getting more women into a company will not help; placing gender as a criteria for employment devalues a woman’s qualifications, because it makes people incorrectly think that she got the job because of her gender instead of her merits. More than anything, what women in science need is the same respect that anybody else would get.




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