STEMMing Into Existence

by Hamayail Ansari, Contributing Writer

I love Netflix, and I’m sure you do too. Countless television shows, movies and documentaries at your fingertips. It’s a great distraction, and in college it’s the perfect distraction. One day, as I put off working on yet another assignment, something from the show Scrubs struck me. A nurse from the show commented on the state of women in the medical workplace: “When you’re a doctor, if you put in too much effort, the men will never take you seriously, and the women will think you’re trying to show them up. You just have to decide if it’s worth the hassle.” Some women physicians may feel they must hide their femininity to fit in “the boys club,” while others find embracing an Elle Woods persona puts them at an advantage. Not only are women policed and judged by their clothing, but they must adhere to standards set by society in order to make an impactful impression. At first I thought it was ridiculous that this was something to be worried over, until I realized its applicability to my own life.

When I started researching the role of gender bias in academia, I realized that I often fail to recognize it myself. I had gone three seasons of Scrubs without identifying countless remarks as bias, laughing them off as humorous dialogue. So, what? It was just Netflix, right? But, it wasn’t just Netflix; I was letting bias slip by in my daily life.

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The desk created by Hamayail’s team

Early in my college career, I enrolled for an introductory engineering course that quickly became my favorite class. After the first few sessions, however, I started to feel like I lacked the experience for even this preliminary course. We broke up into small groups and I found myself embarking on a project to build a workbench for a client with cerebral palsy… from scratch. I knew nothing about woodwork, let alone machining, and instantly felt out of place. I blamed my gender, under the impression that my female status was at fault for my lack of skills simply because 90% of the class enrollment was male. This feeling was ongoing until we began actual work in the engineering shop where I realized many of the men in my group were just as clueless as me. Not had I judged my ability based on my gender, but I did so without any indication from male group members that they were any more competent. They valued my opinion on important decisions and entrusted me with tasks as much as anyone else. The sole source of my inhibitions about my abilities was me.

When college begins, there is a newfound desire for innovation. As such, I found myself compelled to become involved. I wanted to expand what I was learning in my coursework to, as many term it, “the real world,” where I could aspire to something greater than my interests. What I failed to take into account was the overwhelming amount of negative bias toward women in STEMM fields worldwide. In terms of numbers, women only make up approximately 29 percent of faculty in STEM fields (excluding medicine), with men making up the other 71 percent, according to U.S. News and World Report. The most important task at hand is to understand the gender bias at play here. There are many elements that constitute gender bias, but the most applicable definition in the case of STEM fields describes gender bias as a presumed inferiority of one gender that justifies favored behavior toward another. In the case of STEMM fields, there is a presumed notion that women are inferior to men and this develops into favoritism towards men in STEM work. Most gender bias, however, is often unconscious. Men, and even women, sometimes don’t realize when bias dictates their actions.

Occurrences of gender bias, however, don’t always have the positive results in the way mine did. Often they are devastating and many women may feel degraded enough to change their field of study as a result. Many other factors related to gender bias contribute to women’s career pathways. For instance, a recent study at Princeton University found that faculty at research universities generally regard male applicants as “more deserving of higher salary than female applicants” due to implicit biases that portray men as more competent, even when resumes are strikingly similar. In the end, women are forced to believe that they not only have to compete specifically with other applicants, but also are required to make-up for something that is insignificant and unrelated to performance.

Allowing individuals to discuss and confront the issue of gender bias in STEM fields is the first step we can take to alleviate the STEM gap between men and women. Dr. Molly Carnes, a professor of Women’s Health at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has conducted many in-depth studies regarding this gap. In one interview with Stanford Medicine, she comments “…even if we don’t consciously endorse or embrace the stereotypes, we’re all aware of them.” Instead of shying away from discussion, it’s necessary to create an atmosphere where individuals know they are contributing to progress by involving themselves in the cause. We must educate people of all genders about the importance of supporting one another’s aspirations to advance society.

Images: Cover, Desk courtesy of Hamayail Ansari

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