The "Fem" in STEM #MeToo


Every woman that I’ve had the opportunity to create bonds with in my STEM classes, regardless of age, major, or history, has an experience with sexual harassment. Whether it’s the “accidental” intoxicated text message, an exhibition of aggressively “flirtatious” behavior, or blatant sexual assault, the common thread that ties the stories of women in STEM together is one of tragedy.

All professors go through the same song and dance at the beginning of the semester: they, as academic advisors, are here to support us and educate us. Offices are safe zones. Maintaining mental health is important. There are accommodations that can be made for special needs. Title IX and similar programs are available for students’ protection. But most importantly, they are here to support us. While the sentiment is nice, the execution is less than stellar.

It’s hard to report incidences of harassment when male professors dominate academia. By the time victims of sexual harassment, who are often women or people of minority groups, are finally muster up enough courage to discuss something as taboo as sex, the primarily white male faculty can only offer empathy with a side of tissues as their students shed tears of frustration. Pursing Title IX is an option, but comes at the price of anonymity and dignity. It is the duty of  victims to experience, to endure, and to report. No responsibility is held by those who inflict the psychological and physical wounds to amend their behavior. The current system states that bad people are bad, good people are good, and those are things that cannot change. But what can change is how the victims choose to interact with their peers, how they choose to dress, and the time slot of their lectures and labs.

Less than 20% of bachelor’s degrees in physics were earned by women, according to the American Physical Society in 2015 [1]. Compared to 5% in 1965, this seems like an significant improvement in representation for people in STEM nationwide. However, when more than 56% of students in colleges and universities are women, the statistic pales in comparison.

Whether it’s the head of the department, or an adjust professor, it is more likely for the average student to interact with a professional man while pursuing their undergraduate degree in the sciences. Conversely, it is possible for a STEM major to be never be taught by a professional woman. The proportion of Asian women professors, who top out the category of female professors in STEM at a measly 19.9%, is significantly lower than that of white male professors, 44.2% [3]. It is impossible to neglect that white men currently dominate academia because there are simply more of them pursuing STEM for a longer period of time. But why is that? What is the barrier to entry?

By the time I finished high school, my math and science teachers were primarily men. As I took harder classes, the quantity of women enrolled in those classes with me dwindled. Currently, my introductory differential equations class has about 10 men and exactly two women, including me. And the proportion is relatively consistent regardless of the subject matter of the class. As long as it’s science, technology, engineering or mathematics, there’s a good chance I will be in the minority 20%.

Creating female-only clubs, activities, and societies only enhance the problem. I’m sure the title “Girl Boss” was created with good intentions, but focusing on the novelty of a female pioneer feeds the beast of perpetual otherism. Instead of becoming engineers, mathematicians, or physicists, we are female engineers, female mathematicians, and female physicists. The qualifier of sex often devalues the virtue of the title, and this is especially detrimental in more traditional fields that emphasize convention. After all, value is in the eye of the appraiser. 

However, blaming Cisgender Straight White Males for the aforementioned injustices is not the solution to an incredibly complex and nuanced quandary, because they are often not the problem. Plenty of men are able to work with women without minimizing their intellect and questioning their value in the workforce, just as plenty of women are able to work with men without the fear of being harassed. People, which may come as a shock, can be good. However, it only takes one negative experience to instill paranoia and inadequacy. Creating a safe and encouraging environment should be fostered at the roots of education.

Elementary school-aged children express positive attitudes about science, regardless of gender. However, “by second grade, when students (both boys and girls) are asked to draw a scientist, most portray a white male in a lab coat. The drawings generally show an isolated person with a beaker or test tube. Any woman scientist they draw looks severe and not very happy” [2].

Several testimonials of young women in STEM show that they are often insecure in the presence of young men and feel as if they should “play the dumb girl role.” Others feel as if they should know what they’re doing at all times and feel pressured to consistently perform at the top of their class. Although similar pressures and insecurities are expressed by young men, they are not quite to the same degree and intensity. These young women are not alone.

Oftentimes, I feel inadvertently pressured to fulfill one of two Fem-In-STEM stereotypes: (1) the strong, independent woman who sets the curve on every exam and knows what she’s doing. She’s tough as hell, and purveys humor drier than Sauvignon Blanc. Or (2), the young, foolish girl who makes her way through her classes by being pretty and cute. Her smile melts hearts, boys fight to do her homework for her, but she can’t answer the simplest of questions. However, she’s getting an A so she’s probably sleeping with someone, right? Both stereotypes are damning in their own particular way. The strong, independent woman fears to express insecurity, and the young, foolish girl fears to express confidence. These stereotypes are further reinforced in popular media, such as in the TBS show The Big Bang Theory.

There are countless times I’ve considered quitting and switching to a major where women are the majority. Psychology. Communications. Education. Public Relations. Majors where I don’t have to pretend that I know what I’m doing all the time, or worry about being taken seriously. I wouldn’t be studying what I’m passionate about, but I would be comfortable and encouraged by my peers and mentors. Most importantly, I would feel safe.

However, I haven’t switched because I’ve seen women become successful. Nearly half of my college’s physics professors are women. Half of my undergraduate math classes have been taught by women. Since Elsa Neumann, women have been achieving more and breaking down barriers to entry for other women, and have been supported by men. It can be done, and it does get done. But the question is, at what cost?