Last week I tried to explain to someone whom I saw adding to abuse directed at a woman on Twitter why that’s a very bad thing for a STEM Ambassador to be doing – once I noticed that they shared that voluntary occupation in their bio.
STEM is now a popular acronym that describes “Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths” – the sciences and their applied disciplines, essentially. Some like to add another M for Medicine but I think that’s covered by Science and Technology, really. Separate debate.
What is not worth debating is whether women are disadvantaged, underrepresented, discriminated against and put off in these fields. It has been shown time and again, and I’ve placed links and references in this piece to demonstrate that. People with the ability to pay attention, women or otherwise, already know this. I intend this to be a resource to demonstrate this fact, and a push for people to try to tackle it however they see fit.
STEM Ambassadors are trained by a group called STEMNET and their purpose is to inspire young people, encourage them to learn about the scientific disciplines and perhaps aim for a career in one of the fields. I believe that if we’re to tackle gender inequality and discrimination in STEM, teaching children that everyone can do and work in science is vital.
People ask me why I “left science” – I don’t consider that I have, I work at the same place I ventured to 7 years ago to begin my PhD (in cancer research) and I am now helping to spread the word about our work – my job includes supporting our students, new recruits and established staff, many of which are women. Many of whom are friends. I just didn’t feel like lab-based research was for me, for various reasons. I enjoy what I do and I’m lucky to have had the opportunities and support to get there.
I grew up around a lot of sexist older men and I could not possibly fully describe how galling it is to watch people you otherwise love and respect (family, friends etc.) speak of other women (and by extension, you) in a dismissive, insulting and belittling manner. The world already shows us what it thinks of us – we’re underrepresented and discouraged in the entertainment industries: games, film+TV, literature; our bodies are used to sell products; we’re taught they are public property, and people treat them as such.
How many times do strangers comment on men’s appearances in the street or aggressively instruct them to perform something sexual? Would you not find it shocking and inappropriate? Just as one example. These many things and much more is why I have long called myself a feminist, yet people still ask, and yes the question both surprises and bores me.
We are told that the proper, respectable, worthwhile jobs are for men – less than we were in the past, for sure, but it’s still out there with the boys’ toys and the girls’ toys; the blue and pink, the choice of fireman/spaceman/policeman/doctor, or the housewife-cleaner/nurse/princess (that’s not even a job!). I do not believe that women are less capable in these fields – curiosity is all you really need to get started in science, and most if not all children have that.
The “leaky pipeline”
To the point… women in STEM.
Women are certainly discouraged from STEM  (very few girls take A level physics for example), and the few of us who get there regardless are still tested regularly [5,6,7]. Not everyone withstands these tests, and women continually ‘leak’ out of STEM fields [8,9].
Academia is still a sexist environment to work in, and it’s a battle for us. Women are not hired equally and paid less when they are [10,11] – even by other women – sexism is in the air we breathe from day 1 and none of us are immune to that, it can just be easier to acknowledge and try to move on from when it’s happening directly to you.
A House of Commons report states that the causes of women’s underrepresentation are of 3 broad types:
(a) issues particular to academia;(b) issues particular to STEM, and;(c) the gendered nature of work and family care in the UK. 
For example, senior members of staff might criticise women who have to take time off for family. In fact, it’s not “what women do!”, as I heard someone put it, it’s what people who want children have to do and unfortunately we’re required to do the physically draining bit – men who want children often can’t seem to grasp this and consider that perhaps pushing for equal parental leave would make things better for everyone.
Still, women worry that their job will be gone when they want to return to work and have to deal with these judgments about their ambitions and capability at work; on top of the usual being ignored, harassed and other common experiences.
I heard of one occasion when office allocations were decided in a pub on a Friday night, when people had to go to pick up children, so some find out on Monday they’ve missed that boat and ended up with the leftovers – perhaps official meetings that don’t exclude people with families to look after are more fair?
Obviously it’s not clear-cut, sometimes events must be given evening slots to ensure high attendance, and penalising people who do not have dependants is not always an acceptable trade-off. But the prevailing attitude is still that women have families and they are the most penalised; including being asked at interview whether they’ll “go off and have children”, despite this being illegal.
It’s not even that this is a new phenomenon. Women’s achievements have historically been ignored, erased, claimed by men as their own. We are having to work hard to show people that’s it’s not natural that the famous names are men – we just haven’t been permitted and taught to remember women.
Change: young minds
If you are working with children who want to get into this field, you need to be encouraging to them and try to make sure you’re not displaying behaviours that young women and girls will pick up on and internalise. We are not stupid, we live this and see it all the time so when someone who’s supposed to be advertising an industry to girls seems so ready to belittle and dismiss women, I am very concerned.
“The most effective age for intervention activities is pre-adolescence, before negative attitudes appear.” 
Research from California suggests that children need to be taught these things before society can mould them and prejudices set in.
Not good enough
People who insistent they have worked with and supported some women and say things like “But Florence Nightingale was great!” really isn’t good enough. We must at least try to understand that women, worldwide, in all professions, are systematically disadvantaged. We are at increased risk of discrimination, violence, and being blamed for what other people choose to subject us to.
Without accepting that a system of oppression is in place worldwide that constantly erects hurdles along women’s routes of progression, success and what should be simple choices, you cannot claim to be supporting women. Many women frequently discuss these issues and we are repeatedly told to stop. We’re exaggerating.
“Yes, of course, love” “Lighten up” “Get a sense of humour” “You’re a scientist? But you’re pretty” “Other people have it worse, you know” “Are you sure you understand?” “Make me a sammich”.
If official bodies (including parliament ) can do the work, look at the stats and tell you and everyone else that there is a problem, can you please accept that and start working to address it, not adding to the problems that already exist. It is actually part of the STEM Ambassador mission:
“The Government “funds STEMNET to run the STEM Ambassador programme which raises awareness amongst children and young people of the range of careers that science and technical qualifications offer”. Although not a central part of this inquiry, we are aware that the STEM Ambassador Scheme is very well regarded.
We have also previously recommended that engagement with industry should be a core requirement of teachers’ Continuing Professional Development as this would improve the provision of STEM careers advice to students.
We encourage the Government to work with the STEM community and schools to tackle gender stereotypes in education, particularly at primary level.“
- Gender Perceptions in STEM Careers .
To quote that teacher you always respected, it’s so disappointing. Recently a colleague told me his daughter had explained how much street harassment she receives – he seems shocked and apologetic that he didn’t understand before (and her male partner still doesn’t) that this is a global problem that affects all of us.
Women are people, not possessions, not a different species, and we deserve the same respect you would show to your male colleagues and the same (if not more) encouragement as you would give boys showing interested in science. It should not require some personal experience to be able to empathise with women who tell you these things.
I’d rather budding feminist dads than sexist dads (like so many of us endured) but I’d rather still it didn’t require that one girl carrying your genes becoming so important to you that only in mid-late adulthood do you possibly start to consider women’s issues more widely.
Understanding and working against sexism is a process. We have to acknowledge that we all harbour sexist prejudices – we cannot exist in our culture and not absorb those messages. So “women do it” isn’t an excuse – we are, again, human beings and equally fallible. From a favourite article:
- Sexism is a fake idea invented by feminists
- Sexism happens, but the effect of “reverse sexism” on men is as bad or worse
- Sexism happens, but the important part is that I personally am not sexist
- Sexism happens, and I benefit from that whether or not I personally am sexist
- Sexism happens, I benefit from it, I am unavoidably sexist sometimes because I was socialized that way, and if I want to be anti-sexist I have to be actively working against that socialization
So in this case, I would implore you to realise that: sexism is very real. It happens and disadvantages women. You can choose to avoid sexism. You also benefit from lacking barriers that are placed in front of others whose traits you do not share for historical and cultural reasons.
You are not, nor should you be, “genderblind” or colourblind or any of those things – if you think you are, re-examine this attitude because it is not helpful. You do not exist outside of society, you do not breathe “clean air” – you’re as dirty as the rest of us, and unless you notice and work on it, you’ll still contribute.
So I hope people who proclaim to be fair and helpful will in future reconsider joining in with the abuse of women in public, because ultimately all fields and all facets of life need to be less restricted to men and male voices alone – how we think of our fellow human beings and address inequality is a fundamental part of that fight.
It feels like a fight so much of the time, because we are met with so much hostility, for even the smallest of things – for just existing, for daring to speak – and it’s tiring. But people care enough to keep pushing, because it is important.
You may not agree with other people’s behaviour. You may not think you support it, participate in it or have anything to do with it. But the thing that’s more important than saying “But not me!” is listening to people who do have those experiences, believing them, and helping. Not being dismissive and accusing people of lying. It happens all the time, I see it a lot – it’s infuriating. You can look at #yesallwomen for more on this (on twitter or the many articles based around it) .
Men’s sexism is not the same as women’s sexism (sorry), just as black people are not racist in the way that white people are. History and worldwide context is very important; there is a huge power imbalance at play that again, while you may not believe in or subscribe to, very much exists and makes the same actions impact upon different people in very different ways 
I’d hope that people who have children/grandchildren or know any young people would want a fairer world for them – not just for the girls and women, but for the men as well – absurd ideas of masculinity harm men just as enforcing gender roles harms women. Telling boys not to show their feelings, telling them they must be physically strong, that anger is a permissable emotion above all others; these things reduce men. Accusing women of being tempting and blaming them for what men do is to underestimate men’s humanity and responsibility.
“Boys will be boys”? How about teaching them to treat other people with respect, as well as themselves, and don’t excuse unacceptable behaviour. Stop teaching girls to accept abuse, “He only hurts you because he likes you!” – help them to appreciate and respect themselves and not to settle for those who seek to own them.
This is part of why I challenge people. I think it’s important, and I think people are capable of doing better than what we so often see and experience now, for everyone’s benefit.
- Women In Science – BBSRC blog
- Women trail men in securing Research Council grants – Times Higher Education
- RCUK look for evidence of quality – Research Professional
- “Girls love science, we tell them not to“
- PNAS: “Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students“
- “Bias persists against women of science” – NYT Science
- “Study: Sexual harassment is a real problem in science” – review of PLOS publication
- “Stemming the Tide: New Study Examines Why Women Leave Engineering“
- “How stereotypes can drive women to quit science“
- “Women in science, you have nothing to fear but your own subconscious” – Jenny Rohn, Guardian. Links re: hiring discrimination
- “Sexual discrimination in science: why we must act now” – Guardian
- The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee: Inquiry into Women in STEM careers
- Position paper, California State University: “Why girls participate less in science, engineering and mathematics“
- UK Parliament Science & Technology: “Gender perceptions in STEM careers” (quoted above)
- “Not all men: How discussion women’s issues gets derailed” – Phil Plait explains why “not all men!” isn’t useful, just in case what women say doesn’t get through
- “As bad as each other – men’s sexism, women’s sexism” – different groups, same actions, different outcomes – history, social context.
- “Battling Sexism” – I write about sexist stuff reasonably frequently.
– “The Silent Misogyny” – another of mine with similar points to this post, but it jumps around more.
– “What next? Gendered science toys” – a tale of complaint success and a small victory against gendered marketing
– “Prejudice itself isn’t the only problem” – on accepting the status quo before mending it
Not just women
As is the case with any form of discrimination, it is not unconnected to others, and it is not just women who suffer in academia (and workplaces generally).
People having or belonging to minorities; race, sexuality, physical and/or mental illness/disability – also face adversity in these fields and in life more widely. So it is worth expanding these principles to them, drawing on their own specific challenges, and being mindful of the shared and distinct difficulties.
- BBC: “Fewer university offers for minority groups“
– Overcast.fm Gender & Race Swap Online (Podcast)
– “Why reverse racism isn’t real” – see also “reverse sexism”
– “Colorblind ideology is a form of racism” – see also genderblind/sexism.