Is Women in STEM Fields a Feminist Issue?

Yes. Yes it is. You may now click away and go scroll through cat videos.

Female researcher loads DNA samples for PCR analysis Source

Female researcher loads DNA samples for PCR analysis Source

In all seriousness, I had this thought while reading articles about Nobel prize winner Tim Hunt’s stunningly sexist comments about women working in labs. You know, how they’re a distraction because of in-office affairs and the crying that women can’t seem to stop doing. Anyway, I noticed that the floods of articles written about this, its aftermath, and investigating the gender disparity in STEM fields at all come from general sources. This isn’t a bad thing, but my concern is where are the conversations, the articles, from feminists? My search did bring me to an article from written by Patricia Valoy, and it was perhaps the only relevant article on this topic. Valoy makes the excellent point that recognizing and disestablishing the gender disparity in STEM fields is important because there shouldn’t be “male-dominated and female-dominated fields that separate us into gender-specific jobs.” What her article left me questioning, though, is why isn’t this a concern already?

It’s good that independently, feminists that may or may not work or study within STEM fields have questioned this massive disparity, but why has the feminist movement as a unit not questioned it? While searching further, the major concerns of the current wave of feminism seems to be, among the countless others, ending violence on all levels (i.e. campus rape, partner violence, war, etc.), reproductive rights, equal pay and maternity leave, ecological protection, and legal and economic autonomy. So, essentially the same since the beginning of time, but whatever. That’s not the point. The point is that in addition to this broad, sweeping list of things, educational equity has also been and currently is a massive concern of both second and third wave feminisms, however you define those feminisms. So, as both a student and an advocate of feminism, I find it strange that women in STEM is not a topic that feminists or at least big feminist organizations discuss.

I was talking to a colleague about this article, and he told me about a joke about a career fair where STEM fields are set up next to women and gender studies. The women visit the STEM fields and learn about the world through, well, science and math. Then, they go visit the women and gender studies table to learn about fighting for their rights, and then they become gender studies majors. Once they become gender studies majors, they complain to STEM fields about the great gender disparity and the hostile environment for women. Don’t worry if you didn’t laugh. It wasn’t meant to be funny, and besides, my colleague told me about the joke as a way of saying he agrees and understands the situation, which he does. In addition to this, my colleague brought up that the gender gap should be remedied at elementary schools, not when women are picking out college majors.

This point stuck with me. He was right. One major reason we see this gender gap in STEM fields is because of we’ve been socialized that certain toys or activities, like Legos or Easy Bake Ovens, have been traditionally designated for boys or girls. According to the National Girls Collaborative Project, this gender disparity created through early socialization of what is or isn’t an acceptable activity for boys and girls shows in the courses male and female students take as early as K-12. More male K-12 students took physics at higher rates than female students at 42 percent versus 36 percent, and male K-12 students were 6 times more likely to have taken engineering. The argument against these stats would be that these female students chose to take these courses, and you’re not wrong. But if, as result of a society that categorizes what is or isn’t acceptable for a girl to study, science classrooms become hostile and isolating environments for female students. To give you an example, I was in the only lab group with all girls in my physics class in high school, and this was after more than half of the girls dropped physics after the first semester. We only had twelve girls in the class initially out of thirty.

So, if you ignore the potential that your child could be transgender or simply express their gender in a slightly different way than expected, these actions of gendered socialization could be harmless. But as Valoy said, the more likely result is that we inadvertantly educate children that certain jobs correspond certain genders. And things like engineering, technology, and other STEM-related subjects tend to fall under the “for boys” categories.

Women march on the streets of New York September 1970 in support of the Equal Rights Amendment on the 50th anniversary celebration of the passing of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the ability to vote for the first time in the U.S. Source

Women march on the streets of New York in 1970 in support of the Equal Rights Amendment Source

So, then, how does the women’s studies major fit in to this idea? Well, gender studies has a disparity as well. The women’s studies department was formed out of the second wave feminist movement, when the first accredited women’s studies department was formed at San Diego State University (then San Diego State College) in 1970 and the first accredited women’s studies course was taught at Cornell University in 1969. Women’s studies courses were ways for women to have gender equity within the academic sphere. However, gender studies also has a gender gap. It is difficult to find the numbers for this particular major, but overwhelmingly gender studies and women studies courses have more female instructors and graduates than male instructors and graduates. That is not to say there are no men interested in teaching or learning women’s studies, but it is a gap that mirrors STEM in a way that may explain why the gender gap in STEM hasn’t been outlined specifically as feminist issue in education equity. Like we’ve hinted on before, if there’s a hostile and isolating environment in science and engineering high school classrooms, and if that trend follows to college, then young women may choose other courses that have been predetermined that “women’s courses.” And what’s not blatantly “just for women” as women’s studies? Especially, if that major was born out of a movement to empower women and has been labelled as a product of “women’s rights” and “women fighting for women’s issues.” With those kind of labels, women that are considering a career in any of the STEM fields but have negative history with the socialized environment surrounding women in those fields may find themselves gravitating towards an arts major or a “softer” science, or specifically women’s studies.

So, my argument here is not that we get rid of women’s studies (I wouldn’t have a future or a degree if we did), nor am I saying that feminists are bad, mean or wrong. My argument is that in an attempt to achieve educational equity for women during second wave feminism, we, the feminist community, have played into that socialization that makes it harder for women to enter the STEM fields because gender studies is the field specifically designed for women, though all are theoretically welcome. In order to solve this, I suggest all major and minor feminists (and everybody in general) make women in STEM fields an important issue so that true educational equity can be achieved.


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