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Unite and Conquer: Women in STEM

Joanne Wang, Ella Feiner, and Stephanie Li

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This August, Google software engineer James Damore released a 10-page manifesto that quickly went viral, ranting against the company’s diversity policy. The document discussed the ways that “men and women biologically differ” to justify  “personality differences” that explain the gender gap in STEM fields.

Damore argues that women’s higher interest in people, increased empathy, kinder personalities, and “neuroticism” make them more suited for “softer” professions that involve creativity, social interaction, or lower stress. This is problematic for a few reasons.

First, this assumption is not based in fact, but in centuries-old gender stereotypes. Personalities vary greatly between people, not genders, and we are disappointed by Damore’s generalization. Damore addresses one of the oldest philosophical debates, nature versus nurture: although he acknowledges society’s sexist biases, he attributes much of the gender gap to genetic differences. While genetics may dictate where we start, the material contributions of genetics are not enough to limit the role environment ultimately plays in having a longer lasting influence on our lives. And here, the environment is forcing young girls into accepting these cultural biases as truth.

Second, the assumption that science requires no creativity or social interaction is completely false. Though stereotypes portray scientists as antisocial workaholics who spend all of their time hunched over a desk, most scientists rely on creativity to design novel experiments and social interaction to get advice from coworkers. In fact, scientists who are less willing to empathize and collaborate are often less productive. The collaboration found in the scientific community is often crucial in breakthroughs and transformative discoveries and is the backbone of the company at which Damore works.

Finally, the existence of people who believe in the biological inferiority of women causes young girls to internalize these ideologies. A  recent study from researchers at the University of Illinois found that six-year-old girls shied away from games they were told were meant for “really, really smart” children. When the same girls were shown pictures of adults and asked to guess which person was “really, really smart,” they associated the descriptor with men.

During our time at summer research programs and at Horace Mann, we’ve seen countless girls use these kinds of biological excuses as a way to stop engaging with STEM. They claim they are “humanities people” or their brains “just aren’t wired for hard subjects” when in reality they haven’t had a chance to explore intellectually.

Instead of encouraging girls to face challenges head-on, however, people like Damore provide reasons for girls to quit.

In his manifesto, Damore continues that Google should stop so-called “diversity” hiring and focus on choosing the most “qualified” candidates rather than closing the gender gap. This idea that women in the same positions as men are less competent permeates all aspects of life.

Even at summer research programs, we’ve been told that we were only accepted because of our gender and that we don’t actually deserve to be there. We’ve heard boys lament how much easier it is to be a woman in STEM, since it seems like the bar is “so much lower” for women.

Being a woman in STEM is viewed as an inherent advantage; it is “easier” for us to be accepted to prestigious colleges or get jobs in tech fields. When discussing math contests with male students, we’ve been told that we don’t need to aim any higher because our scores are “really good for a girl,” and that boys have to work harder and do better just to be considered equally accomplished. The absurd notion that being a man in STEM is more difficult because men have to “achieve more” makes us realize how little people know about the struggles faced by women in STEM.

We’ve spent the past years of our high school and research careers trying to prove our worth when we know male students are accepted as “brilliant” without question. All three of us have struggled with confidence. We have felt confused about our interests, unsupported due to competition, and defeated.

Damore concludes his manifesto by pointing out the sexism behind “exclusory programs.” In fact, our very own Girls in STEM club has been under fire for being superfluous and even sexist. At Horace Mann, we are lucky to have many female STEM role models, but there is still fierce competition amongst the small community of girls interested in STEM. We want to correct that by providing a collaborative forum for girls to speak about their experiences.

Now more than ever, it is important for us to focus on supporting and empowering each other. Though we’d like to believe that we are approaching a society where gender does not decide capability, this manifesto made it clear to us that we are nowhere close. Until we reach that point, we will make it our priority to encourage other women by setting an example of self-confidence and showing that girls don’t need to prove themselves; we have every right to pursue our STEM interests.








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Unite and Conquer: Women in STEM