STEM Sexism Needs to Stop

The kind of subtle, insidious sexism that is so widespread in STEM is hard to pin down – not because of any subtlety in how it manifests itself, but rather in the way we approach sexism in everyday life.

COMMENTWhen I was 15, the boys in my TY class created a ranking out of 10 for every girl in the year. My ranking was a 7 initially. It was reduced to a 5 because I was “too smart”. I’ve never been average in my life.

I’ve regularly heard that maths isn’t for girls, that the “science says so”, that women are emotional and men are logical – and the lack of peer-reviewed reputable research to back up those claims seems not to weigh on people’s minds. I have two female lecturers this year. I know the name of every girl in my physics class; it’s not that big an achievement.

I’ve learnt to avoid statements that acknowledge my own ability, instead putting my success down to a passion for chemistry – because when you’re a woman, being self-confident is an open invitation to be attacked.

I’ve been told that I got my scholarship because I’m a woman; that I was there to fill a quota and tick the equality box. I’ve defended “Women in STEM” scholarships to too many people to count who believe in reverse sexism. FYI, sexism is gender-based prejudice with the power to enforce it and I am powerless in this world.

The kind of subtle, insidious sexism that is so widespread in STEM is hard to pin down – not because of any subtlety in how it manifests itself, but rather in the way we approach sexism in everyday life.

The blinkers are well and truly on when it comes to gender representation: men consider a room containing 17% women to be gender-balanced, and one with 34% to have majority women. Men are blind to sexism, find writing off misogyny scarily easy, and to cap it all off, they have essentially all the power. It’s just empirically the case that many men won’t notice that a gender disparity is appearing as a result of their own actions – but when you’re a young woman in STEM, you notice.

Everyday signals

You notice that only 22% of academics in the Faculty of Engineering, Maths and Science are women. You notice that there are only 9% female lecturers in that same faculty. You notice that despite Trinity’s Athena Bronze Award and supposed dedication to gender equality, the website for Women in Science & Engineering Research (WiSER) hasn’t been updated in any meaningful manner for two years and the scheme most certainly isn’t promoted.

You know how hard it is to cry sexism when the onus is on the victim to prove meaningful intent to discriminate, and sadly not all scientists are kind enough to be as blatant in their sexism as Tim Hunt. Because when you’re the only woman in your physics tutorial you notice that asking a question leads to a change to a patronising tone of voice from your professor. But in so far as “patronising” isn’t something that can be quantified in any meaningful way, and crying sexism leads to the inevitable backlash of “touchy feminist”, it’s often just not worth it.

You know how to make value judgments on what subtle attacks against your person are worth speaking up over, and what ones will shift from implicit to explicit attack if you try to respond. You know to write S. Jennings at the top of your CV so they might assume it’s Steve, not Sarah – because even when everything else is equal, female researchers will be offered less money for their work. In the STEM world, and all worlds, gender equates with value and significance.

You know that the stereotype of not dressing well in the Hamilton sends the message that you choose to be pretty or you choose to be smart. Mascara doesn’t glue your eyes shut so you can’t do differential equations, and heeled boots don’t make a sound so loud you can’t read a book on thermodynamics. But when you’re 14 and you value yourself in terms of what your peers think, the choice to embrace your love of maths and chemistry is genuinely an act of defiance and one you’ll receive little thanks for.

It should seem unbelievably self-evident that STEM positions should be equally distributed; women and men are equally good at science (this is just empirically true). If you believe that an equal faculty would require mediocre women to fill up spots, then you have to believe that the current male majority has an awful lot of mediocrity amongst its ranks.

Tackling the gender gap involves dismantling the patriarchal structure of decision-making that dominates at high levels of academia. It involves opposing attempts to introduce a tenure system that both forces women to make a choice between family and work, and uses vague criteria to decide who gets tenure – providing easy outs for sexist dismissals of proposals.

Real change

At undergraduate level, events like Women in Science Week, female mentor programmes and scholarships for women need to be encouraged at all costs and we need to see more of all of them.

But there’s only so much efficacy in encouraging women at undergraduate level. Those of us who have made it this far have faced at least 17 years of consistent and underhanded attempts to limit us from joining the world of science and technology.

Boxes of blocks and construction tools that breed love for engineering in the hearts of young children are hidden down dark aisles in toy shops with shelves groaning with Action Men and Hot Wheels. Later on, guidance counsellors in schools push unsure students towards subjects perceived as being “high points” and away from the classically difficult applied maths and physics.

People question the motives of female students choosing STEM (no, I’m not going into pharmaceuticals) but seem not to do the same for men. “I’m doing technology and engineering” elicits two responses that have a degree of an eyebrow raise wholly determined by your gender. It’s often even the case that male-dominated subjects like engineering and applied maths aren’t offered at all girls’ schools or small mixed schools. I know quite a bit about odds, and these are some seriously stacked ones.

Change wouldn’t just be “nice” to correct the statistics of sexism in STEM; it is vital on a micro level. I can’t speak for all women in STEM – we’re not a homogenous group – but I know the internal conflict I feel so intensely.

I define myself quite considerably by my gender and enjoy being a woman and all that that entails. But my identity is something that has placed the restrictive and painful glass ceiling over my head. It has left me with the joyous future prospect of earning less money than equally capable men. My gender has defined who I am, limited who I can become, and forced me to feel belittled and lesser for doing what I love more than anything else.

I didn’t ask for an apparent 30% reduction in desirability to men and a guaranteed 30% reduction in pay. I didn’t ask for this, that’s simple biology, but fact doesn’t make fair.