Feminism and STEM
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Feminism and STEM

How gender and gender roles is not an extinct topic.

Feminism and STEM
SexEd Center

My interest in women in STEM (science technology engineering math) came about from a conversation I was having with my dad. I had found a website which analyzes Nobel Laureates and interesting facts about them.

Excerpted from that website, in reference to the Nobel Prize in economics:

“They started giving out that prize in 1969, and so far it has gone to 76 individuals. Only one of those was a woman. Talk about disappointingly misogynistic.

We're not expecting the number to be 50%, but one out of 76? Of all the backroom shenanigans and cronyism that plague the Nobels, how come so little attention is brought to this disparity?

It's even worse in Physics, where just two out of 200 winners were women, and the last one of those was in 1963. “

I commented to my dad that perhaps a male bias in the Nobel committee may be the reason so few women have the Nobel Prize; (and even if the members of the selection committee aren’t all male, a patriarchal culture may still end up promoting males over women). I’m not the first, and will certainly not be the last to notice this discrepancy . Articles such as The Nobel Peace Prize's problem with women | Curt Rice, Is The Nobel Prize A Boys Mostly Club? : NPR, highlight this problem. My dad’s response was that perhaps a lesser proportion of women were producing Nobel quality work, and to increase the numbers of women for the sake of increasing the numbers of women would not do the prize justice. He has a point. A nuanced critique of affirmative action for race would make the same point: having a top institution accept more of a minority race for the sake of increasing the numbers would actually hurt the minority race, because they wouldn’t be capable of doing the work the institution requires, for reasons that are probably not their fault and have historical antecedents involving entrenched poverty, racially motivated differential access to resources, and so on. My mom backed my dad’s argument by saying that in a culture where women have traditionally been responsible for taking care of the home, and as of recently, working in jobs, that would give less time for Nobel-quality work to arise.

There have been all kinds STEM conversations unfolding in the public field. A notorious example was the Indian CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella, whose remarks on a women’s conference were stunning: The moderator, Maria Klawe, asked him, “For women who aren’t comfortable for asking for a raise, who aren’t the younger you, let’s say, what’s your advice for them? “

His response was “It’s not really about asking for the raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along. [it’s] one of the additional super-powers that, quite frankly, women who don’t ask for a raise have, because that’s good Karma, it’ll come back. In the long-term efficiency, things catch up.” When Maria Klave was interviewed separately on the debacle that was slowly consuming the twitter universe, and asked , “do you think he just misspoke, or those are his genuinely held beliefs?”, she said “ I think his genuinely held beliefs, which are almost certainly a result of his cultural background, were that it would be a better world if people didn’t have to constantly ask for promotions and raises, and his comments were not to women, but to all employees.”

I could have argued back with my parents, and I did – how if the Nobel committee is all male (and I can’t tell if the committee is all male because though the names of the individuals is public knowledge, I don’t have a knowledge of Swedish names to discern who is male and who is female), that would be like an all white jury judging a black defendant in the 1960’s . But I didn’t want my interest in this topic to be over-reliant on numbers. Numbers are important, and they do tell a story. In fact, there are those who say our society is plagued by innumeracy, a deficit in understanding statistics, equally pernicious as the more common plague of illiteracy. Nevertheless, if you get caught up in numbers, there is a risk. This is a danger that Albert Camus was alluding to in La Peste, in which the town Oran is besieged by a plague, and the authorities have quarantined everyone in the town as a safety precaution to prevent the spread of the disease to neighboring towns, including people who were visiting the town and got stuck there after the plague struck. The journalist Rambert, a stranger to the town, was voicing his frustrations about being separated from the woman he loved in another town, to the doctor, Rieux, the main proponent of the quarantine: “But damn it, Doctor, can’t you see it’s a matter of common human feeling? Or don’t you realize what this sort of separation means to people who are fond of each other?...You can’t understand. You’re using the language of reason, not of the heart; you live in a world of abstractions.”

I can swim in a pool of numbers, and shower you with statistics, but there is the risk that dealing exclusively with numbers will lead one to live in a “world of abstractions”, as Rambert reprimanded Rieux; in a world distant from reality . Though numbers are very important as tools of understanding, they are only tools. Screw-drivers have no useful function independent of the use to which you put them to. And a focus on numbers as a form of “data” has an effect analogous to a biologist who confines him or herself to the laboratory, looking through microscopes and wearing latex gloves, studying life in a way that is insulated from life, but never coming into contact with life in the great outdoors. Sam Harris makes his claim that Islam is not a religion of peace, by relying on polling data. It’s hard to be convinced by his methodology because he relies on abstractions. Has he met a Muslim?

I decided to take a leaf out of a journalist’s notebook, and conduct some investigative journalism of my own. I thought it imprudent to make sweeping generalizations about women and STEM, by simply poring over statistics – that would be abstract. Instead, I set about to ask my female friends about their experiences in STEM.

Roshni Mistry was part of a program called “Expanding Your Horizons,” in which she played the role of mentor/leader, among others, in helping middle school aged girls be inspired to pursue science and math. The program occurred at Saint Mary’s College, and she oversaw middle school girls working on science projects, and a keynote female speaker came from Pixar. This was important to her because it was important for her to see women in these scientific fields kicking butt, and dominating; The word dominating I include here not to invoke a negative connotation, but a positive one; that the women were stellar and shining in scientific fields. I asked her about her experiences as a math major and female at Saint Mary’s, if and how her gender affected her experience of learning. “In abstract algebra, it was two-thirds guys and one thirds girls, “ Roshni said. “In computer science it was half-half.” As far as the senior theses went in math, there were 18, of those, of which only 6 were girls (1/3)

“Does it bother you that the ratios are skewed?” I asked her. “No, you kinda get used to it. You don’t notice it anymore.” But there were some aspects of male privilege that she noted, that did not relate to the proportion of girls to guys, but related to the way guys could exercise their social freedoms in a way that females felt they could not, out of a social concern. “It always bothered me that guys asked the distracting questions , the guys would ask tangential questions, tangential questions never came from girls.” To Roshni, this is a reflection of male privilege, because the guys didn’t have to worry about the same things as the girls did. She said, “[The problem was that] the guys could ask and entertain their curiosities where the girls only asked questions if it was constructive or for clarification.” According to Roshni, the questions girls would be more apt to worry about in a social setting were questions like “am I talking too much?” or “what if I’m wrong?” but males had less of these worries and felt more free to speak out, regardless of the veracity and relevance of their comments.

One anecdote that was especially illuminating was her experience with education in Kenya, as part of Saint Mary’s “Jan-term” experience. She was observing an all-boys high school, and one of the boys wanted her to solve the problem for him, to which she disagreed on the basis that she was there to observe. But out of her curiosity to see if she could solve the problem, she solved the problem on the board, to which she was greeted with jeers from some of the rowdier boys like “a girl solved the problem, and she wasn’t even paying attention, you got showed up by a girl.” In her view, they probably didn’t have bad intentions but the comments were nonetheless disconcerting. She has a long-term goal of being a high school math teacher. I asked her what she would like to see in the classroom, as far as solving gender biases goes. “It would be cool to have an all-female class, but not an all-girls school,” because according to her, this would allow them to shine without worrying about competition that arises out of having males in the classroom. I turned to leadership, and asked her about the idea about world peace being a reality if only women were leaders, because men are the ones who are likely to take a nation to war. Her response was that “it might backfire, unless the patriarchy is overturned, because women might act like men to prove their worth.”

I think it’s interesting that Roshni mentioned the tendency for women to “act like men to prove their worth”; I remember once I was taking Western music lessons and my music teacher told me that she artificially made her voice sound deeper in her social interactions to make her sound more masculine. “Acting like a man” -- the tendency for our society to value the masculine traits of stoicism and level-headedness is interesting, because it is apparently the ideal for everyone, guys and girls. A bias toward masculine traits was evident even in Plato’s Republic, when he talked about removing from his ideal society poetry and art not conducive to his conception of the perfect society. Plato says, in book 4 of The Republic: “Then we shall be right in getting rid of the lamentations of famous men, and making them over to women, or to men of a baser sort, that those who are being educated by us to be the defenders of their country may scorn to do the like.” Plato was trying to educate the young to be warriors, and he thought the traits to inculcate in the young were the “manliest” traits of stoicism, for crying is something women do. This rings very modern (which means that gender roles have persisted throughout the ages), when modern people are likely to say “don’t cry, you’re behaving like a girl,” ; to be branded “like a girl” is a mark of shame, as it were, and these remarks which Plato led the way in indicates a derogatory attitude towards femininity.

The second person I interviewed, whom you will meet in a second, said that it would be awesome if a woman were president, because “women can do everything a man can, but in heels.” The implication is that both the genders (and I do agree with a critic who would point out that I am using a gender binary in this article) can do the same thing, except they would look anatomically and biologically different (hence the heels). But wouldn’t this philosophy lead to, if pursued to its logical conclusion, a state of affairs in which every historically gender-associated attribute was interchangeable save anatomy? A state of affairs one female v-logger called the “death of distinction?” This same v-logger said that “in America there is this huge loss of respect between the sexes, no more an appreciation of each other, no more a need for each other” – caused in no small measure by the notion that men and women are completely interchangeable.

In my journey of investigative journalism, I decided to ask Akshaya Narayanan about her take on STEM and women, as well. She goes to the University of Georgia and is doing pre-med and is a biology and psychology double major. She said that in her General Education science classes, the ratio of boys to girls is pretty equal. But she has a roommate whose major is computer science, where she said ,”it’s not as evenly split, [where its] 75% guys and 25% girls.” She observed that in a school she was considering going to, Georgia Tech, the ratio of guys to girls is 60-40, which her dad advised her not to go because it might not be as safe because guys do dumb things, in comparison to the University of Georgia, which has the reverse ratio of guys to girls, 40-60. She observed that in her school, the school with the greater proportion of women, the females lean towards the liberal arts.

As to the safety regard, I thought that was an interesting point, because it seemed to vindicate the popular-culture aphorism that “boys will be boys.” But, I think, as some people have rightly pointed out, this aphorism, as realistic as it may sound, assumes that guys are naturally uncontrollable and wild and haven’t the ability to distinguish a good desire from a bad one, and I think this stereotyping – furthered by gross generalizations that guys are rambunctious by nature -- is not without its harms. Nonetheless, Akshaya said that for Georgia Tech, “if you’re applying to mechanical engineering, with the same grades as a guy, you’re more likely to get in (as a girl).” Undoubtedly Georgia Tech has something like affirmative action/quotas to ensure equality of numbers. In the University of Georgia, all the health sciences – pre-med, pre-pharm, etc – have a pretty even spread (gender distribution) at least in the lower-division classes. I told her I was interested in the psychological angle of this, and whether the fact that science classes tend to have more guys than girls is in any way daunting. She replied that “it matters for some people, but for me it wouldn’t make a difference.”

Our conversation turned to role-models, and the importance of role-models for women. Akshaya said, [role models for women] are so important. There was a Shark Tank episode in which a girl went to MIT as an engineer, and [on the bio blurb in Shark Tank] she said ‘my dad never let me play with Barbies, he always encouraged me to build things.” Akshaya stressed the importance of family which encourages gender-bending, and who constantly ingrain in them a “go-for it!” attitude. She said that role models are very important, and that although there could be more female role models, “my generation has to do more in STEM, so there are more role models for the next generation.”

I asked her what she thought about gender roles, and the role of toys in shaping gender roles. She said, “When a girl plays with Transformers, she’s called a Tom boy, but when a boy plays with Barbies, it’s considered weird. People should be able to do what they want.”

I asked her about leadership, and the notion that if women ran the world, there would be world peace overnight. She disagreed, saying “I don’t agree that women can bring world peace, and men can’t.” I pressed her on this point, and alluded to societal notions of women being the “gentler sex”, associated with the maternal instinct, and shouldn’t that be a kind of evidence for the conclusion that if women ran the world, the world would be peaceful? She said, “I don’t agree with the notion that there is a gentler sex. Hilary Clinton isn’t gentle, she’s fierce.”

I asked her about in her ideal world, what gender equality would look like. Her response was that in that world, there wouldn’t be anyone saying “oh, he’s a man [and can hence do x], or “oh, she’s a woman [and can hence do y]. Instead, people would say ] s/he’s a person, and just because she’s a woman doesn’t mean she can’t be strong, and just because he’s a guy doesn’t mean he lacks empathy.”

I decided to ask Michelle Quezada, known to her friends as Misha, about her views on science and women. Misha majored in psychology at Saint Mary’s. I asked her about the distribution of women and men, and she said there were more women than males in the psych. major. I asked her why this might be and she said that “psychology focuses on the emotional side…society is geared towards stereotyping women as more emotion[ally atuned]…but Saint Mary’s also has more females.”

What was interesting, too, was the break-up within the psychology major. She said, “In neuro-psych, there were more males; it was more science and research based. You studied the brain, and the lobes, and how [for example] how in sociopaths brains certain lobes are under-developed.” There were never more males than females in her psych. classes, but there were guys in all but one of her psych classes. We talked about the reasons for why physics is seen as a “hard science” and psychology and sociology are seen as a “soft-sciences”. She agreed that the perceptual distinction exists, and said, “today, more women are going into STEM; [but part of the reason for the difference is that] in math classes, it’s by the book, you memorize rules. But in psychology, there are science and rules, but you have to understand people, which there isn’t a formula for. Its theory based.” Some of her classmates who studied kinesiology–which is considered a “harder science” -- were often in tears!

She said that in most schools psychology does not fall under the category of the science department, but liberal studies. I asked her how the whole STEM gender bias could be addressed, and she said “in Junior high and high school, girls lose interest in math and science;[ the difficulty ] is to get them more involved [in science and math].”She referred to an idea that people have been touting, that of Barbie being an engineer, which could get girls interested in making video games. Lastly, I asked her about the stigma that guys feel when they wear pink, and what she thinks about the relationship between color and gender, and whether those stigmas should exist. Misha said, “I think it’s dumb that society defines a gender by certain colors, with babies being dressed in pink if they’re a girl. It’s wrong that there’s a stigma against guys playing with dolls, guys can be nurturing too. “ According to her, designating pink as girly and blue as a guy-color are confining. She said, “[These gender-marched colors make] people feel limited, and [the associations of boy colors and girl colors are have the effect of] limiting creativity and people’s ability to enjoy what they wear.“

As my interviews came to end, I realized numbers can’t tell the whole story, not at all. Though there are notorious discrepancies in males winning accolades in science and math versus females, this is part of a larger issue, one which Patrick Henry wrote about in his speech “Give me Liberty or give me death” – the ability to live one’s life in a way compatible with your most cherished desires, and the ability to live in a society that encourages in you the agency to enable the realization of those desires.

This has far-reaching consequences in terms of gender. It suggests that many more women should be encouraged – by motivational teachers – to pursue science and math as early as elementary school, and that guys should be steered towards poetry and stories by motivational teachers, in order to create a gender-bender kind of society, a society which flouts the rules and conventions of tradition.

It suggests that we should as a society also think about the unquestioned stoic values which society encourages everyone to adopt, for both males and females. Is masculinity really a value worth heralding as superior to femininity? Our current obsession with very vigorous work-out regimes, bordering on the physically decimating, and our obsession with working so many hours a week is causing us to lose touch with reality.

There are articles, such as http://fortune.com/2015/11/11/chart-work-week-oecd/, which lament the fact that the average US worker works “only” 34.40 hours a week, and how the US is getting their pants beat off by other countries, with Israeli workers working 35.63 hours a week and Mexico coming in for first place with 42.85 hours. How unproductive the US is, laments the author of the article. Look at Mexico! But he neglects to mention that Mexico is having quite a lot of civil strife at the moment because the teachers are striking against government, because they are dissatisfied with many things, some of which are probably their pay in relation to the absurd hours they work.

There is a kind of masochism in how trying to endure for long stretches without caving in (how many hours can you work, how many marathons can you run), like the way Stanley Yelnats and his friend Zero challenge each other who can last the longest without drinking water in the book Holes. The aforementioned masochism is part of the cult of masculinity, the uncritical love of stolid forbearance; Camus writes about Sisyphus, who is condemned to roll a boulder up a mountain, only to watch it roll back to its original position, for the rest of eternity, as punishment from the Gods. Camus, whom I started this article with, writes in his book The Myth of Sisyphus,”

“A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself! I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.”

Camus is praising the man who toils so close to stone that his face is stone itself. This goes back to Roshni’s point about how if all women were leaders, world peace may not necessarily be the outcome, since they are still compelled by society to prove their worth by acting like a man: by acting unemotional, stoic, taciturn, apathetic, inexpressive, not particularly concerned with displaying outward signs of sympathy at others misfortunes, etc.

Ayn Rand was a fan of the masculine virtues. She said in a speech entitled “The Sanction of the Victims”:

“Another contributory evil is the philosophical root of altruism, which is mysticism – the belief in the supernatural which preaches contempt for matter, for wealth, wellbeing, or happiness on earth. The mystics are constantly crying appeal for your pity, your compassion, your help to the less fortunate, yet they’re condemning you for all the qualities of character that make you able to help them.”

She associates masculine traits with positive things: productivity, higher standards of living, monetary wealth. And since the production of wealth enables helping others, she sees it as hypocritical for people to criticize the qualities in others which on first glance seem detached and aloof and unsocial but upon deeper examination are the very qualities in an individual which assist the production of wealth and hence, have the potential to help others in material ways. The founder of the yoga foundation, Art of Living, when criticized for money grabbing, charging fees, self-dealing, said in his defense, “charity cannot come from an empty pocket.”

Let’s see why Ayn Rand associates the masculine with the altruistic. Her conclusion that masculinity is linked with altruism is reached with the following syllogism:

Masculine traits are necessary to create monetary wealth

The creation of monetary wealth is useful when being altruistic

Hence, masculine traits are necessary to be altruistic. All she has to do make her case is to show how masculine traits leads to wealth-production, because the syllogism takes care of the rest:

On the left of each sentence, I’ll state a psychological attribute, and on the right, I’ll state a characteristic that is traditionally thought of as assisting or conducive to wealth production.

Someone who is perpetually calm might be thought of by others as dependable in a company. Your co-workers ought to be able to rely on you.

Someone who is unemotional might be thought of as cool and collected, and hence capable of making rational decisions, another trait valued by an employer.

Someone who is succinct might be thought of as efficient; able to distill the essence of something, doesn’t waste time – and not wasting time in a company is tantamount to not wasting money (time is money). My business law professor in high school told us of the experience that persuaded him that there is no free lunch in life. He was standing in line waiting for a free ice cream – it was free, there was no monetary charge. But he realized it wasn’t actually free. It cost him time, and time is money, time is what has to be utilized well in order to be efficient, and efficiency is needed to make money to beat out the other firm. So someone who is succinct, and doesn’t beat around the bush, and doesn’t use colorful phrases, is someone who is efficient.

It’s not difficult to see why Ayn Rand associates these traits (calm, unemotional, succinct, lacking in visible signs of sympathy or general ejaculations of emotional outburst) with altruism, if you buy the syllogism I laid out a paragraph ago.

But if she’s going to speak about the qualities that are despised by humanists because the holders of these masculine traits seem socially aloof, but are required in actuality to help people, shouldn’t the end resemble the means? Shouldn't helping people, the end, resemble the traits that you observe in the stoic masculine shakers-and-movers ? Bertrand Russell made the point about the requirement for verisimilitude between disparate things eloquently in his book Why I am not a Christian. He was offering a critique of the notion that though on earth, there is a lot of injustice (good people suffer, to put it in a banal way), there is justice in Heaven. But he wonders why should there be justice in Heaven? Russell writes : "That is a very curious argument. If you looked at the matter from a scientific point of view, you would say, “Afterall, I know only this world. I do not know about the rest of the universe, but so far as one can argue at all on probabilities one would say that probably this world is a fair sample, and if there is injustice here the odds are that there is injustice elsewhere also.” Supposing you got a crate of oranges that you opened, and you found all the top layer of oranges bad, you would not argue, “The underneath ones must be good, so as to redress the balance.” You would say, “Probably the whole lot is a bad consignment.”

What guarantee is there, in other words, that the person who is outwardly unconcerned with social justice, outwardly a-social, taciturn, not given to elegance – in short, masculine -- , is going to, after becoming rich and successful, devote his/her time to social justice then? If s/he is not doing it now, they’re not going to do it then. It would be foolish to disregard the evidence of your senses and say, “Well the top oranges are bad, but I’ll keep hoping that the bottom ones are un-varnished.”

Milton Freidman and other conservative economists have argued against policies which redistribute wealth because the result of redistribution would be to destroy the incentives that create wealth and make charity possible.

Ayn Rand would argue a logically parallel argument, claiming that it would be foolish to criticize personality traits ,such as being stolid, calm, outwardly unsympathetic, unemotional, laconic as being antithetical to a concern for social justice. On the contrary, Ayn Rand would argue, to get rid of those traits would be to get rid of the traits which produce wealth and hence altruistic behavior, because it is the calm, collected, stolid, outwardly unsympathetic, unemotional, laconic person who will probably devote him or herself to science and not socialization , and accumulate knowledge about a disease that benefits all of mankind.

In such a way is masculinity paraded and trumpeted, heralded and praised, at the expense of the feminine. And the question is, is sacrificing the feminine for the masculine a trade-off our society should undertake? Ultimately, the conversation about STEM and women has to be resolved not by a statistician, but in a women and genders class, in which the topic of femininity and masculinity are courageously explored.

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