Recently, I was asked if I had evidence that proves gender discrimination exists in STEM fields. The fact that this question was asked in a theoretical physics institute, my floor of which has a grand total of five women out of about four times as many men, should’ve been answer enough. But I suppose it is hard to decipher reality through the hallucinogenic fog of privilege.
The fact is women throughout history have been treated as second-class. This is not something that the “radical, liberal left” cooked up one day because they were bored. The story of crimes against women is one that runs as red and as deep in my blood as it does in yours. Your mother can tell you one form of this story, your sister another. History books from hundreds of years ago can tell you a third. So it shouldn’t be that hard to wrap your head around the fact that this discrimination has seeped into the fabric of our personal and professional lives today. The discourse in science, especially, is unapologetically centered around men. There is a beautiful article by Ed Yong that quantifies representation of female scientists in science communication. Adrienne Lafrance has another insightful article which talks about gender bias in science reporting. Apart from the numbers — which make a strong case by themselves — almost any female scientist or woman in STEM that you talk to will have at least one example of casual sexism that she faced in the workplace. Furthermore, it’s important to note how many of these incidences are shrugged off with the grown-up equivalent of ‘boys will be boys’, which is of course, ‘it’s just a joke, you’re overreacting’. The truth is though, we aren’t overreacting. If anything, we are exercising extreme restraint given the fact that throughout our lives we’ve been repeatedly told that Science is for Men. This message is not always direct, of course. It is in how society conditions you subtly. In how Barbies are for girls and Transformers are for boys. In how clothing for infants –who are most definitely not thinking about a career, or even a future in general — is categorized into blue NASA-print onesies for boys and pink I’m-a-princess ones for girls. In how we have an abundance of cartoons focusing on male child-prodigies in science and none centered on girls. In how a large fraction of the internet completely lost its mind when The Doctor regenerated into a woman because “a time-traveling alien with two hearts who frequently changes his body” is realistic but “a time-traveling alien with two hearts who frequently changes her body” isn’t. And all of this and more eventually culminates into how my lectures in Field Theory had three women and thirty men. And how on a visit to CERN, a friend randomly pointed out that the cafeteria was almost entirely populated by one gender. I’ll let you guess which one.
The gender bias in STEM is the result of centuries of oppression, of a patriarchal mindset that has rooted itself so firmly that we no longer feel its claws digging into our skulls. When you grow up in a world which is structured to subliminally preserve this nonphysical divide between what men and women are allowed to do, it becomes hard to acknowledge the struggle of those who try to deviate from the norm. And it becomes easy to overlook how our actions and statements and “jokes” feed into this giant machinery of oppression, the cogs of which are forged from suffering and disparity and injustice. It becomes easy to reduce a woman’s concern to a tantrum and her science to how good she looks when she presents it. It becomes easy to be condescending. It becomes easy to look at a room full of people only a tiny percentage of which are women, and un-ironically ask, “Do you have evidence for widespread gender discrimination against women?”
Woman in STEM? Ally? Decent human being who believes in equality? Pop in and say Hi.
Until next time.