Heads and heels in STEM

Solvay conference, 1927.  Curie is the only woman scientist (first row, third from left) Solvay conference, 1927. Curie is the only woman scientist (first row, third from left)

The status of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) is revisited this time of year, close to International Women’s Day, which is observed to promote equality, raise awareness, and reduce discrimination against women.

Discrimination based on gender is a pressing issue that continues to surface in inconspicuous ways. Professionally, it is not restricted to the STEM fields. Margaret Atwood was once asked, “how does it feel like to be a female writer?” Such questions have a patronizing quality to them, as was aptly remarked by Lisa Kudrow’s political character in a TV show.

The status of women in STEM professions too is far from ideal. In the past year, I encountered a competent mechanic who suffered from a long list of health problems because of continual gender discrimination and ill-treatment at her work; a few years ago, another mechanical engineer friend quit her job after her inebriated male boss acted inappropriately at a business gathering but faced no consequences for his behavior.

Even within the hallowed halls of academia, it is difficult to escape these upsetting gender-based experiences. Meg Urry, the chair of Astronomy at Yale, has been actively giving talks on this topic for several years now. She has provided examples from her own youth, during which she experienced moments that seemed to merely point to a certain distinction based on gender (such as, a professor addressing the class as “gentlemen and Meg”). Only later in life did she realize that it had been discrimination all along. She describes it accurately:

“Discrimination isn’t a thunderbolt, it isn’t an abrupt slap in the face. It’s the slow drumbeat of being underappreciated, feeling uncomfortable and encountering roadblocks along the path to success. These subtle distinctions help make women feel out of place.

And some are not so subtle! When I was a young astrophysics postdoc at MIT (and the only female postdoc), one weekly colloquium speaker began his talk about the importance of high resolution in optical imaging with a badly out-of-focus slide. As he sharpened the focus to make his point, a topless woman in a grass skirt on a Hawaiian beach gradually appeared. The male students laughed, while the one other woman in the room shared an appalled look with me before standing up and walking out.”

What is worrisome is that we cannot even brush it off as a generation flaw. In fact, Urry had believed that she was coming out of an age of discrimination in the early 1980’s because her professors and peers would never have remarked out loud (even if they secretly believed it) that women were incompetent at physics compared to men. Eileen Pollack, a writer with an undergraduate degree in physics, has also stated her dismay at finding the same, unchanging psychological elements that she struggled with in the 1970s. What is worse – the harmful effects are even stronger now because we live in a society, which believes that there is nothing that can hinder the success of women in any field.

During my undergraduate studies, I have experienced several strange remarks stemming from gender, a few of which are worth pointing out:

  1. I once worked as an undergraduate summer research student within a mechanical engineering lab, alongside a PhD student and another undergraduate; both of them happened to have a Y chromosome. One morning, the PhD student left a memo notifying us to ask the university’s technicians to machine a simple structure. In a postscript, it was advised that I should probably place the request because sending a girl would ensure a faster response from the technicians.
  2. One day, during the same summer, two men from a company visited the lab. The PhD student described the experimental setup, which was used to run a maximum of three runs per day since it was necessary to clean the system after each measurement. The visitors understood this messy business, and almost reflexively, pointed a quick finger at the only girl present, and concluded: “So that is why you have her here”. The PhD student smiled and said nothing because the prospect of funding dictates every self-preservation instinct within academic creatures.
  3. During one semester, I was taking an elective; the instructor worked at a company and taught one evening course. One day the class was going over the assigned time, and a few of the commuter students became anxious to catch their trains on time. The teacher caught onto the restlessness and snapped, “tell your girlfriends and wives to love you a little later tonight”. What was more shocking, however, was that there appeared to be no sign of disgust, amongst the male or female students.
  4. On the last day of that same course, the professor, who was more engrossed in taking pictures of the teams for his website, insisted that a picture be taken of him with the team leaders, and requested “the two female leaders to stand on either side of him”.

In 2012, a journal article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) observed a gender bias among the faculty of science. Apparently, biologists, chemists, and physicists, (both male and female scientists) are inclined to agreeably perceive a young male scientist and offer him a job than a woman with the identical qualifications. If they hire the woman, they are likely to reduce her salary by nearly $3,000 on average.

Such evidence showing the different evaluation and treatment of women in the STEM fields compared to men has been acquired by social scientists such as Virginia Valian. For example, a woman scientist might be considered a female first and a scientist second.

There have also been cultural arguments to explain the persistent deficit in the number of women in the STEM fields. Men in some countries do not mix someone’s sexual and scientific identities; others fail to acknowledge a woman as a female and a scientist. This attitude is frequently seen in comments in response to science blogs or videos made by a female, where the safe virtual haven does not hold them back and unleashes their remarks on the looks and features of the speaker, or any sartorial offenses made by her.

These scientific, social, and cultural studies report the gender-related observations. But what can be a step towards solving this problem? The journalist community has dealt with it by creating the Finkbeiner test, which entails a checklist that can help determine whether an article shows a gender bias. An obituary of the rocket scientist, Yvonne Brill, in the New York Times, which opened with “She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children” is an example of an article that fails this test.

But how can we reform our attitudes, especially considering the lack of natural interest in the matter because scientists tend to dismiss the possibility that they can be biased? This casual denial of gender prejudice by the industry, researchers, and professors is harmful because they are the ones who write letters of recommendation and join the hiring and tenure committees. Meg Urry has taken steps to make it easier for academics to gain access to the existing and abundant social science research. She has organized conferences and given more than 60 talks to introduce and discuss these issues.

Discussions about gender biases do not imply that every woman in engineering should be given a scholarship for being a woman in engineering. I have known talented undergraduates who desperately needed a scholarship to support themselves financially but lost it to an average female student. This kind of encouragement should be avoided because it will only create more anger and bias, and lead to the belief that every female student with a scholarship or opportunity must not be there due to her abilities. Jobs, admissions, and scholarships in STEM have to be based on merit without any notions of ‘male’ or ‘female’. Newton’s laws of motion don’t discriminate between the female and male species, and neither should the criteria for job offers and research positions.

Gender bias is also an important issue because similar attitudes are involved in prejudices based on race, religion, and color. It is unhealthy, disrespectful, and harmful and if one can get rid of his/her biases in one sphere, perhaps, it might help diffuse into other realms.

The first step is being aware of these ugly realities that no one wants to admit, and probably the best way to highlight it is through comedy, whether it is in the form of a speech, comic, performance, or my personal favorite: Monstrous Regiment, a book by Terry Pratchett.

For the most part, we have come a long way from an era when there used to be only all-male photos of students and faculty in the engineering halls. There is plenty of encouragement out there, even if occasionally you do run into people who seem like the inspiration behind the SCUM Manifesto.

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