PSA on gender discrimination in STEM

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?”

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Until next time. 

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2 thoughts on “PSA on gender discrimination in STEM

  1. Do you feel this gender bias is something inherent to STEM or it’s more of a workplace issue irrespective of the field/industry? I strongly feel that there has been oppression against women and they have been subjected to not just casual sexism, but systematic malic and discrimination. But why is STEM singled out? Why do we keep speaking as if the STEM community has done something extra wrong above and beyond what has been committed against women in other industries? Should this not be looked at as an issue that is a result of patriarchal oppression to keep women away from the workplace in ALL industries and not as something that is a problem with people in STEM? Is there any reason to believe that there are some forms of discrimination that are more prevalent/inherent only to STEM?

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    1. Okay so the answer to this comes in many parts. The first and probably the obvious one is, this post was inspired by a conversation I had and it took place in a STEM-environment. But I guess that’s not the answer you’re looking for. Most of the discourse in my social-media-bubble also focuses on discrimination against women in STEM which is again because the people I follow belong to STEM-environments. But that’s not a complete answer either.

      I agree that discrimination against women in prevalent in all facets of life. That is one of the points that I’m trying to make. But the thing with STEM is, it is completely opposite to the established gender roles in the world. Men are “intelligent” and women are “emotional/creative”. So a woman pursuing arts for instance, or painting, still fits the “idea” of an “ideal woman”. A woman pursuing science is an anomaly. This is not to say that women in other professions don’t face discrimination. It is just that there are “acceptable”, “less-acceptable” and “eyebrow-raising” professions for women and STEM careers usually fall into the latter category. So a woman as a secretary is normal but a woman as a CEO or a researcher is unthinkable.

      To answer your question, If STEM has done something extra-ordinarily wrong, this is how I think about it. Scientists are trained to think logically. They are trained to let go of their biases or if they can’t do that, not let their biases cloud their judgment. If you think about it scientists are some of the most highly educated people on the planet. You would expect that they would be a little less judgemental when they deal with people who are different from them. For example, a researcher who has spent his life studying the origins of the universe should know the stupidity of discrimination. This probably plays into the idolization of scientists as “above-human” which is also obviously problematic, but maybe the reason for holding STEM to a higher standard.

      Lastly, speaking of one thing doesn’t mean you can’t speak of a second thing. Women of color, for instance, or LGBTQ individuals are also discriminated against. There is also a lot of conversation regarding women in Wall Street and the toxic work environments that many women face in MNCs. These conversations do happen and often. The trick is to step outside our own bubbles and engage with people who have experiences​ different than ours.

      I hope this was helpful. 🙂

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