Thursday, January 09, 2014

Mini-Rant on Making STEM Attractive to More Women

I have a growing dislike for the focus on "making STEM more attractive to women," and I feel the need to have a mini-rant about it. This is not a fully formed argument. It is just some thoughts that want out of my mind and into a rant.

If what is meant by "making STEM more attractive to women" is to somehow change the fundamentals of the STEM field, I find the suggestion insulting, as if you have to add some strange extra window-dressing to the field to appeal to us silly females. This is not to say that I have a problem with identifying the ways in which engineering, for instance, helps people, but that I have a problem with the assumption that (1) this is a requirement to attract women  and (2) that men will be uninterested in this information. You know what? STEM fields are pretty darn interesting on their fundamental merits, and most kids of any gender recognize this. We don't need to gussy up the fields to get the girls interested.

If what is meant by "making STEM more attractive to women" is to reform working conditions to make them more hospitable to people who have non-work commitments (like children) or just an interest in having a life apart from work, then it is incredibly sexist and insulting to all concerned to assume that this is only of interest to women. I am all for these reforms, but let's stop acting like they are just going to benefit women, because men have kids and aging parents and hobbies, too.

You know what I think? I think that plenty of girls and young women have an interest in STEM fields, but that as soon as a girl expresses that interest or is seen to be good in a STEM field, she starts hearing that "girls don't do that" or "no boy will want to date you if you're into that" or other such nonsense.

And as soon as a young woman takes any steps to act upon her interest in STEM, she quickly runs into some jerk of a man who wants to tell her that women are innately inferior in this field or who tells her that any award she wins was given to her because she is female. Or who decides to spread rumors that she is sleeping with the TA, and that's why she's getting an A. Or who creeps on her or outright harasses her. And if she expects anyone to reprimand this jerk, she is usually disappointed. She quickly learns that dealing with this sort of behavior is just what she'll have to put up with to pursue this interest.

Then the "concerned" people start in and wring their hands and tell her that the career she's considering will keep her from being a good mother, or finding a romantic partner, or being a generally happy human being with friends, or some other thing that the concerned people imagine is incompatible with being a woman in STEM. And even if she is lucky enough to have a counter-example or two to point to, those helpful, concerned people will tear her counter-example apart. "Well, yes, but she is such a bitch." "Well, yes, but I wouldn't want to put my baby in day care so early." "Oh, but her marriage ended in divorce." Or other such nonsense, all said with a knowing arch of the eyebrows, meant to imply that the STEM field is the root cause of whatever supposedly undesirable thing is being discussed.

And maybe she looks at all that crap and decides to follow one of her other interests, because they are really interesting, too, and why should she put up with this crap? Maybe that is a conscious decision, or maybe it isn't. It doesn't matter.

So you know what I think people should do to make STEM attractive to more women? Stop being so shitty to the women who are already interested in STEM. Basically, stop requiring that a woman be so hugely and unwaveringly interested in STEM that she will put up with being told she isn't a real woman (whatever the hell that is) and treated like crap just to get to work in the field, and I think that you will find that more women are interested in STEM.

Now, this was all just me ranting. I do not have data on these observations, beyond the fact that every single one of the obnoxious things I mention has happened to me personally over the course of my career. Maybe I am wrong, and we could stop telling girls and young women that following their interest in STEM means doing something "unfeminine" and we could stop making women who are interested in STEM put up with sexist comments and insulting and factually incorrect assessments of women's innate abilities in these fields and we could stop tolerating dickish behavior from the men in the field because "they're just having fun" and there still wouldn't be as many women in STEM. But it wouldn't hurt to try, would it?


  1. Anonymous6:22 AM

    Yeah, every time I see one of those things, I think, "Oooh, oooh, I know how to make STEM more attractive! Stop being such sexist asshats. Problem solved."

    The experiences I read about from people in natural sciences are so terrible. I can't imagine conference behavior like what I read about, and then the online defending of the terrible behavior from male scientists. And the Nature short story and the doubling down on it and all the recent scandals with science gate-keepers and race and gender. That's not to say social science doesn't have problems with race and gender (we do), but not to the level where it is overt and people think it is AOK to harass someone specifically for not being a white male.

    There are books of data on the effect of microaggressions (and stereotype threat and etc.) on women's "staying in" fields. I don't know what has come out recently but a decade or so ago there was Lifting a Ton of Feathers, and Why So Slow.

    And a solution? Get at least 30% of each of these fields to become female. Like Lean In documents, change starts happening once you get a quorum.

    Additionally, I recently heard about a field experiment that showed that when women are told that affirmative action is in place, the numbers of women applying go up such that they don't actually need to use the affirmative action. Just showing for real that they are committed to hiring women means that women actually bother applying. Get rid of discrimination and they will come.

    I suspect that there's a reason that my department (male-dominated field) is now majority female at the assistant professor level. We do best practices in hiring (rubrics, grids, etc.) Once we had hired more women than the average department has, at least 2/3 of our best candidates consistently became women AND we picked them to interview. We're benefiting from discrimination elsewhere.

  2. Anonymous6:43 AM

    (So yes, more women does = magic. They start being thought of as individual people rather than as representatives of their gender. That's not my field of social science, but so far I've been convinced by the evidence from various different areas, like mandated board % in Europe or mandated politicians % in Asia. Though there's still problems when all the senior power people are guys-- it has to be 30%+ throughout (see lawyers). And I'm not 100% sure it's the 30% number, but that's what I remember. 15% is when it starts feeling like 50% to the majority, but I think it was around 30% where it starts to make an actual difference.)

    1. I don't know whether this cheers me up or depresses me. On one hand- yay! When we hit a certain percentage, things will get better. On the other hand- it sucks to be in the group building to that percentage.

  3. Amen, Cloud. I agree with everything you wrote 100%.

    I've had experiences where well-intentioned but stupidly implemented attempts to get more women in science have gotten in the way of my doing of actual science/technology. I had a teacher in high school who made it very clear to me that he valued my participation in a certain technology-oriented school club because of my femaleness. When he introduced the club to outside members, he freuquencly introduced me as "one of the women on our team," and once, in addressing the entire club, gave the boys a talk about how they should "respect me." This was completely of the blue--none of the boys had shown me any disrespect that could tell.

    What pisses me off the most about these experiences is that they got in the way of my ability to actually learn and improve my technical skills. Being valued for my chromosomes meant that, in that particular situation, I wasn't held to the same technical standard that I would have been if I had been male. This removed pressure to learn and improve and perform, and that pressure would have done me a lot of good back then (I definitely tended to be lazy in high school when I could get away with it. It would have been nice to learn about hard work sooner). So, even though this teacher meant well, I think his behavior did more harm than good for me and I think other women too. I ended up sticking with the club and STEM in general, but there were very few girls who participated.

    The other thing is that It's taken me 10 years to process those experiences and figure out what I think of them. I had emotional reactions when all this was going on, but I didnt' really have the perspective on why all this behavior was so annoying and counterproductive to me personally. So well-intentioned educators maybe never get thoughtful feedback from the people they're trying to help.

    Your rant also made me think of a study I read at some point about how to have there be more black mathematicians (can't find it now)--and the conculsion was that the way to have more black mathematicians is to make math education better for everyone. Math education in this country overwhelmingly sucks, so people who end up going into math usually do so because they have extra enrichment at home from their families. School by itself isnt' enough. I feel like its kind of the same way with STEM education--it isn't very good, so most people who do end up going into it do so they have extra support of some kind in their families and communities. So I also think that raising the quality of STEM education for everyone would do a lot for increasing the number of women/minorities in STEM.

    1. Anonymous9:37 AM

      I was also the "token female" on Odyssey of the Mind. That was my first introduction to hating male physicists. There would be more. Fortunately physics has a crappy job market, so I don't feel like I'm missing much not having to work with those assholes.

  4. Lovely rant. I have some thoughts on this but it occurs to me they would be a better blog post. I am all about efficiency! So why am I not in STEM? It is kind of a long answer and also a short one. There are other things I like more.

  5. I'll just chime in to say that it sucks that you've had these experiences, but maybe there is hope as the older generations and ridiculous ways of thinking die off. I've honestly never experienced (in school and my student-type work environments, not in FT, long-term employment) this kind of unfriendliness, negativity discrimination. If anything, teachers/professors/bosses have gone out of their way to encourage female students and be/point out positive role models. Maybe I lucked out in the schools I went to growing up, but I know that my undergraduate institution has a major focus on women succeeding in STEM fields and my graduate field is, while not female-dominated, much more balanced than other STEM fields. I never heard those types of discouraging thoughts and rumors in college, my post-bacc job, or grad school.

    I'm not trying to invalidate your experiences or to say that the problems don't exist, but saying that they're not everywhere in STEM and I have hope that they are decreasing with time.

    Personally, I am more concerned about workplace policies that support childbearing/rearing - yes, men will benefit as well and I'm glad to see more cultural support for involved fatherhood, but I expect that it will be my career more so than my husband's that will be derailed by parent-unfriendly policies because of the straight-up biological demands of the early years.

    1. Anonymous11:32 AM

      If you had gone to your undergrad 10 years earlier, it would have been a completely different experience-- less than 10% of its student body was female at that time. It was a joke. Your undergrad is one of the schools that has made a huge effort to recruit and maintain women in STEM. They're famous for it (especially re: CS) and an outlier in that respect. Women in your generation who went to your school's top two competitors regularly met with some of the things Cloud is talking about, from fellow students if not from faculty (Cloud retweeted an article recently about MIT that goes into great detail). It was *even worse* before the MIT study found structural inequities among faculty and appointed a president with a mandate to fix the problem. (Additionally sparking the NSF Advance program, which pushes "draining the pool" over "teaching women to swim".)

      My sister was very careful about where she went to undergrad for her STEM degree-- our flagship state school chases many women out of engineering and has a reputation for being cutthroat and unfriendly to women among faculty as well in many of their engineering departments. So she went to a top private school with a strong reputation for nurturing women.

      So yes, there are some programs that are better than others, but they're also the ones that are purposefully making changes to culture. Your school didn't become supportive to female students just by time passing-- the change happened in a very short time-frame with a great deal of effort and leadership.

    2. I shouldn't have implied that time passing is the only thing that will solve this - I don't think that, I just had that paradigm shift truism in my head! Definitely HMC should be held up as an example and I think it deserves the recent press the president has garnered for it. I'm just saying that those good environments exist, and I've apparently been in them for my whole life (not just in college). Maybe there is something in the public/private or university/college distinction as well - it would make sense that environments that are set up to support and nurture students generally will also be great for women in STEM fields.

      This is super nit-picky so sorry to all those who don't care, but your 10% figure struck me as off, and looking at this data it seems that HMC passed above 10% enrollment in the early '70s (and has been coeducational since its inception). My class was about 1/3 women and I think they're consistently around 50% now, which is amazing.

    3. Anonymous1:04 PM

      Ah, yes, you're right. I think the 10% number came from a specific major. If it was like the other 'tech schools there was a clustering of women in specific majors (usually the "soft" sciences, "soft" being defined as whatever the women are majoring in, of course), and not the one that is my reference point. Something else that they have made great strides in, btw.

    4. I really do believe they're changing with time. 10 years ago my graduating class in physics was ~40 with 2 women. I remember starting as a first year with 1/3 being women. The environment wasn't conducive to female success. At the time the workforce wasn't too receptive either: one of the gals became a flight attendant after a year. These days I see far more strides to getting female faculty around and making the environment less 'I can't wait to tap that' to 'this student is just like the rest'. I don't think we need to be changing the fields, but the environment could still use some tending to.

    5. I have heard great things about what Harvey Mudd has been doing. I'm glad to hear that those things are justified!

      I think there are two things going on: there may indeed be progress where this generation will be subject to less crap than those of us in the older generations were, which is great news. (Some depressing interactions I've had with young men make me not 100% sure that is happening, but I hope it is.) However, I think there is a cumulative effect, and so things wear on you more as you've had to deal with more and more of them.

      Actually, maybe there is a third thing, too- I think some things get worse as you advance up the ladder. A somewhat trivial example: it bothered me a lot less when people assumed I didn't know something when I was junior and probably didn't know it. It is really pissing me off these days, now that I am fairly senior and it would be a much fairer bet to think that I might just know what I'm talking about.

    6. Anonymous7:48 AM

      Actually, maybe there is a third thing, too- I think some things get worse as you advance up the ladder.

      This concerns me too. I was a EE undergrad, astrophysics Ph.D and generally had positive experiences along the way. Now I am 42 and starting to really see the ways in which my field restricts female advancement. It's frustrating.

    7. I was HMC chemistry '07. My experience as a woman at HMC was fine (mostly, you know, but generally as good as I'd expect in a CS-heavy social group at a tech school). When I went to work in industry and to graduate school (at the University of Washington) my experiences were different.

      Graduate school was where I saw the most overt sexism and a portion of it absolutely came from new assistant professors. I do not think that these attitudes and actions will die out on their own.

  6. Anonymous11:48 AM

    I also agree 100% with you, cloud. I also had a lot of very similar experiences myself, from a graduate student telling the incoming undergrads "the way to the BS goes though my bed", to a Professor openly leering at me and I can't count the times I've been told I'm not a real girl/woman, to a classmate in the advanced physics highschool class groping me (and me never bringing this up to anyone because I was the only girl in there and I didn't have trust any of the boys to stand up for me). Around the time I started in physics I was actually pretty convinced that I won't found a partner if I did become a physicist.
    I have met a lot of very supportive physicists, including my husband and my PhD advisor and many friends I made along the way, but there are definitely a lot of jerks out there.
    What really bothers me is that it doesn't seem to get much better. Now that I have kids I hear so much gender stereotyping, it's driving me nuts. I wish we could just let people be who they want to be. The way my sweet 3 year old is told he can't be a princess for carneval because only girls are princesses and the huge attention he got showing up in his princess costume are, to me, the flip side of the coin.
    Wow, this got a huge rant of my own, delete if you feel it derails the conversation too much, it's a sore spot for me as you can probably tell.
    Have a good weekend everyone,

  7. I think that the under-representation of women in science is more of a symptom of a greater problem than a problem in and of itself. I think the problem lies with the scientific community.

    1. The is no lack of interest in science, by men or by women. Science job fairs are mobbed (I attended one on October 7, 2013). PhD programs reject highly qualified candidates. Getting a job in science can take a year or more. We do not need to encourage more young people to study science (because they are already doing that). We need to insist that academia, industry, and government tap further into existing talent.

    2. Scientists need to be told, quite forcefully, that mentoring others is one of the moral and ethical responsibilities of being a scientist. Science is about generating knowledge. The more we have in the field, the better. Every scientist out there was mentored by other scientists, thus mentoring must be paid forward. A scientist unwilling to mentor another is guilty of professional malfeasance.

    3. Research universities need to be told, even more forcefully, that federal funding is not a constitutional right. Make (or at least threaten to make) funding contingent on several conditions.
    a. If the university has a Division 1 sports program, a certain percentage of those revenues must be used to fund scientific research, or all federal funding (including student aid) will be withheld.
    b. Require that universities (depending on several factors) add X tenure track positions to their faculty every Y number of years. Consequently, the universities must also increase their post-doc positions and PhD slots by a proportionate amount. Failure to do so will result in funding being withheld.
    c. Universities should have a “shall admit” standard for admission to a PhD program. In other words, anybody meeting said standard will automatically be admitted. Universities are flush with money. They just do not put enough of it toward science.

    4. Private corporations should have tax breaks and grants (e.g., SBIR) structured on the scientific commitment. Companies that lay off large numbers of scientists need to be hit with penalties.

    These proposals appear gender neutral on the surface but women (and men) cannot flourish in science if the powers that be drag their heels. Our society excels at wasting talent. I have an MS in biochemistry but did not get accepted into a PhD program. Instead, I worked as a freight handler for three and a half years. Something is wrong here.

  8. This article is from 2006, and it is the author’s speculation, but it should be required reading for anyone interested in the problem.

    1. I'm not sure you're really getting the point of my post. I have never had trouble finding a job. I have been laid off twice, but do not view either of those times as particularly negative experiences. I am not talking about it being difficult to get jobs. I am talking about the fact that once I am there, I usually have to put up with some sexist BS.

      The discussion about whether or not there are enough jobs in STEM to go around is a separate one. Even if there are not many jobs in a particular field, access to those jobs should be equal to men and women.

    2. Sorry, I did post prematurely. Although I do stand by my earlier point that scientists have a profound obligation to mentor and help to advance other scientists. Sexism exists in many fields, but it is particularly damaging in science.

  9. I agree absolutely with "want more women in STEM?/take care of the ones there!" for obvious self-interested reasons.
    One minor quibble though. I have mixed feelings about the "engineers are helpful!" approaches to "selling" women on engineering. While I think "you folks get applied education/ you folks get abstract education" can be used to water down fields and undermine confidence when one encounters true academic snobs, I'm more bothered by the idea that it's meaningful to type people into applied vs. abstract thinkers. Both modes are important for most people, and people that excel more in one or the other can find a home in most "fields" of STEM (Inasmuch as a field can be approximated by e.g. college majors).

    However. There is another reason the "helpful" point may sell engineering that should be talked about explicitly. There are somewhat parallel questions about "why are women underrepresented in business?"- and one study ( suggests it's partially that that women are more concerned with ethical issues. Now, noting that may risk playing into an is/ought problem, and it raises a question of what to do about it. One argument I partially agree with is that women *are* more concerned about ethical issues because their freedom to be selfish is more constrained, which is patriarchy and abusive and designed to subjugate them; so we shouldn't encourage them to think about ethical concerns when picking a career. The counter argument, which I also partially agree with (can you sense the ambivalence here?) is that screw the sociopaths, ethics *matters*, darnit. If women don't like business because it's unethical, we need to make it more ethical.
    If we work of the later assumption though, the answer to STEM isn't "stop being jerks to women, and they will come", but "START being DECENT to EVERYONE, and the women will come". Which strikes me as about right.

    1. I have seen that study about women in business. Business doesn't have to be unethical- I know of a couple people running businesses and doing it very ethically. But I do think that you are sometimes faced with situations where bending your ethics will get you a personal career benefit, and it would be interesting to look at what men and women are more likely to do- and what the actual results are. Do men and women chose the unethical behavior at the same rate? If a man and a women both choose to be unethical, do they get the same benefit?

      I have never been confronted with a true ethical dilemma, but there have been many points where I have had to choose my battles- i.e., I know of something that I think is not quite right (but not illegal or immoral) and I choose whether or not to use my influence to fight it. My own personal rule is that I have to choose some battles. I can't choose not to fight any of them. And I would go down fighting any illegal or immoral behavior- I think a lot of people would. The problem is that there is a lot of room in the "behavior that is bad but not illegal or outright immoral" area, and it is hard to know where you'll draw the line until you find that you have drawn it.

      I absolutely agree that we should be decent to everyone and that would sort out the problem, too. It just seems that in my experience, the people who are more often on the receiving end of bad behavior are women.

  10. One of the places I do outreach is stem for girls. The founder of this non profit is pretty adamant about having the events be 100% female. Only girls, female mentors, female instructors. At first, I was's really hard to help you because I am one of the only women here and it would be easier to resource with my guy peers because I can't do everything. Plus, it doesn't represent reality. But, after doing a couple of them at different age levels, I realized, she is right. There is something really awesome about being surrounded with people just like you. You're not the one dork girl in science club, you're just one of many like minded people..of all ages who loves science. Also, getting to meet adults who do science for a job and have fun and look normal makes them know its possible.

    I go back and forth on the discrimination thing. There are still some major issues at a high level at my work, but I also feel very respected by my peers. As I think about why, i think that is just because it's the survival of the fittest. Not just any woman can survive this environment and the ones that do tend to be extraordinary.

    I will say that making science seem fun at an early age is also pretty important. My latest exercise was teaching 3rd graders about manufacturing methods using play dough. It was a huge hit and they learned a lot of new vocabulary and food science and manufacturing jargon without realizing it. I used gummies and fruit roll ups to talk about the difference between molding and extrusion.
    Coincidentally, each girl had 2 jars of play dough and there was a lot of pink and purple jars. They were fighting over the blue because it was the most rare.

    1. I can't remember the source of the quote or the exact quote, but there is a famous quote about how we'll know that women have achieved equality when there are mediocre women in positions at the top of their fields. Because there sure are a lot of mediocre men.

      I also think that some truly great women get weeded out or self-select out because they get tired of their ankle weights (to pull in an analogy from an old post that I can't find right now- I'll come back and add it when I have time to search properly.)

    2. Anonymous7:52 AM

      I can't remember the source of the quote or the exact quote, but there is a famous quote about how we'll know that women have achieved equality when there are mediocre women in positions at the top of their fields. Because there sure are a lot of mediocre men.

      Definitely. My field identifies what it considers the up and coming women and then proceeds to offer them the bulk of the awards, TT offers, invited talks, etc. Women who are good but not among this group have it much harder than men in the same position.

  11. Anonymous8:14 PM

    Our link love this week is exactly why I'm glad I'm not a scientist. #2 has patriarchy fatigue now so we might have to take a break. Thanks Nature for being overwhelming with your overt misogyny again.

    1. Yeah, that was pretty terrible and depressing. I have a mini-rant about that in my links post for the week.

  12. Great piece of writing, I really liked the way you highlighted some really important and significant points. Thanks so much, I appreciate your work.

    STEM Majors


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