EMS: Engineering, maths and sexism

An insight into the subtleties of sexism found in Trinity’s STEM departments

Usually, when one thinks of sexism in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths (STEM), one might think of Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell being overlooked for the Nobel Prize, or the joke about Francis Bacon’s sister being behind his work, or Hedy Lamarr being remembered as a beautiful actress but not as a talented inventor. Fortunately, few students today face such obstacles to their study of STEM subjects as their predecessors.

However, just because students are not forbidden entry to the Hamilton if they have a uterus doesn’t mean they don’t face sexism in their everyday lives. Today sexism is more subtle than some historical examples. In fact, many times it is well-meaning. It comes in the form of TAs assuming a girl needs more help than the boy sitting next to her or a peer speaking over their female counterpart to make a point in a lecture. “Sexism comes mostly in the attitudes of lecturers and TAs,” says Maria Pachowicz, JS Maths student and co-founder of TCD Women in STEM. “I had a TA who, whenever I asked a question such as ‘How do I solve this equation?’, [they] would instead answer a much more basic question, on the level of ‘See, 2+2=4…’.”

Sally Anne McCarthy, SS Astrophysics student and Faculty Convener for Engineering, Maths, and Science, says that facing sexism is exhausting. It’s “a bit like having the universe gaslight you. It’s a seemingly unending barrage of microaggressions, and it’s hard to know which ones to call out and which not to.”

“It’s mainly in group projects,” says Claire McNamara, SF Computer Science student and Computer Science Convener. “I’ll be the only girl and feel like I have to prove myself, but people think I’m being bossy rather than trying to prove myself.” She says she tends not to notice people being subtly sexist and instead focuses on the fact that she’s in college to learn.

It certainly doesn’t help that these forms of sexism are difficult to describe. They can seem benevolent, or to be brushed aside as just one sexist person. Taillte May, a JS Theoretical Physics student, says that in her experience, “people want you to tell them explicitly about a really sexist incident, and then they tend to dismiss that as an isolated incident of one crazy person rather than recognising it as part of a larger sexist culture”.

In daily life, these women combat sexism by, as JS Engineering student and Engineering Convener Celia Hughes says, “simply [calling] out a sexist comment made in conversation”. Maria and Taillte say they point out even some more mild forms of sexism, like men talking over them or making offhand remarks, to combat the lack of awareness people have about sexism. “Particularly if you’re not the person experiencing it, you’re not aware of it at all,” says Claire. “It just depends on who you are and how in tune you are to it.” Sally Anne, however, has hope. “The tide is definitely changing! The more noise we make about it, the more we share our experiences, the harder it is not to hear them.”

In anonymous surveys were conducted for this article, when asked whether respondents think gender discrimination occurs for EMS students at Trinity, 36% of the men said yes and 40.4% said no, with 48% of women and non-binary people saying yes and 16% saying no.

Some measures taken to promote gender equality in STEM can be quite controversial, such as awards and scholarships aimed at women in STEM intended to benefit this traditionally disadvantaged group. However, the optics around such awards often work to their disadvantage. 19.1% of men said they had faced discrimination and of those, 76% said that this discrimination came in the form of some opportunity denied to them because of their gender. This is in comparison to the 42% of women and non-binary people who cite experiences of sexism to include everything from mocking by TAs to being told that women can’t do maths or code as well as men. From the perspective of women, who these awards are intended to help, thoughts are mixed. 48% think that female-only awards and scholarships are good, while 12% say that they are not. “It creates a lot of bad feeling when people see that without understanding why they’re there,” says Taillte. “I understand why you would feel that way as a man, but it kind of shows a lack of understanding about the understated pressures on women.”

Sally Anne agrees: “We could be doing more to explain why women’s awards and scholarships are still offered.” She also notes that there are other disadvantaged groups deserving of scholarships. “More awards and scholarships should be set aside for those from working class backgrounds.” Maria says that they are necessary to ensure women are given a chance but are often treated as the only solution. “On their own, they can have the opposite effect, like making men feel discriminated against or like sexism doesn’t exist because we have a female-only award.” Celia says that, while “they’re useful at a secondary school level to promote the idea of pursuing STEM subjects for girls…at a university level [they] only further perpetuate a gender bias.”

Gender discrimination clearly isn’t only a problem for women. 86% of women and non-binary people agree with this, as do 84.3% of men. Claire notes that we need to “make sure everything is balanced and be aware [we] don’t bring it too far to the other side”. Some men in the survey describe things like TAs favouring women when grading assignments, with Sally Anne giving the example that TAs might assume girls need more help. “This does raise problems for all students. For undergrad men, they might not get the same level of support, or they might feel negatively about not knowing as much as the instructor thinks. For undergrad women, it’s just really frustrating and a little condescending.”  

Some of the most telling responses in the survey were about whether gender discrimination would have an effect on women’s and non-binary people’s decisions to pursue a postgraduate degree. Of the 50% who said no, 37.5% said they wanted to do a postgrad no matter what other people thought and 37.5% said that they didn’t take possible discrimination into account when making their decision. Of the 18% who said yes, 44% said that discrimination made them more determined to prove people wrong, while 44% said they would not pursue a postgraduate degree for fear of discrimination. While the fact that the prospect of facing discrimination discourages women from wanting to continue their education is disheartening, and something that should be changed, so many people not caring and wanting to do it anyway bodes well for the future.

It is important to remember that no one person or group of people is fully to blame for sexism in STEM fields. As Taillte said right at the end of our interview, “everyone has sexist thoughts because we live in a sexist culture. Having sexist attitudes at this point in our lives is completely understandable, but it’s also not acceptable. It’s just important to notice when it happens and keep pulling ourselves and each other up to a higher standard.”