Confronting gender disparities in STEM 

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Bela Tinaj and Lamia Chowdhry

At Horace Mann’s second virtual Women in STEM (STEMs) conference, which took place last Saturday, Audrey Pe, founder of the nonprofit Women in Tech (WiTech) and a sophomore at Stanford University, discussed how she had once been the only young woman in the room at a tech conference. Pe’s experience was by no means unique among many women and girls. However, the conference Pe referred to contrasted starkly with the absence of young men at STEMs. 

This conference featured eight female speakers who have either pursued or are looking to pursue careers in STEM fields. In particular, these women addressed the gender disparity present in STEM fields. There is so much we can say about the event, from panelist Valerie Robert’s The Circuit, a tech media platform that covers the intersection of social justice and tech innovations, to Dr. Hao Wu’s work in structural immunology at Harvard University, but what we would like to highlight is not these inspiring accomplishments, but a disappointing reality: not one male student registered for the conference.

Women make up 50 percent of the American workforce, yet only 27 percent of women hold careers in STEM fields. As such, STEMs aimed not only to empower young women in pursuit of the sciences, but to tackle how sexism often discourages girls and women from pursuing STEM careers. Creating a platform to openly speak about these issues is important, but it is perhaps more important that a responsive and appropriate audience participates in these conversations. The goal is to highlight the challenges women face in male-dominated fields, including unequal pay, lack of representative mentorship, and imposter syndrome, as well as to think about the steps that can be taken to combat sexism. In order to do this, men and boys, who are the group perpetuating this issue, must involve themselves in the conversation.

The absence of male students at the conference suggests that they think the topics addressed were “women’s issues” that did not pertain to them. Science-related events are often flooded by men, but in an instance where women were spotlighted not only for the adversity they overcame, but for their achievements, no men attended. Listening to these lectures should not be a priority exclusive to women. 

Girls often face sexism in STEM-oriented classes and clubs as well. Young boys are often told that they can be an astronaut or scientist, while girls are stereotyped as being better at humanities subjects. As a result, boys tend to feel comfortable with calling out in class with no regard for whether or not they are correct, while girls are generally afraid to speak up in a class unless they are certain they will say the correct answer. However, at STEMs, men who were once loud do not even feel the need to be present when male power is being criticized, condemned, or put at risk. When women speak against the sexism that allows men to uphold such power, like at the STEMs conference, men do not feel the need to listen. 

Women do not have the choice of avoiding places where they may feel like their agency, power, or dominance is being taken away, because this is the case in most spaces. It is a luxury to be able to avoid difficult conversations regarding discrimination; women are motivated to do the work necessary to create change, but this can only be done with a mutual understanding and relationship with those who hold the power: men. 

This is not exclusive to STEM-related spaces at school. Women are often expected to initiate and sustain conversations about sexism, but these conversations should not be seen as “by girls, for girls.” Conversations about sexism in all fields should be conducted in educational environments.  As the systemic gender disparities that exist in society are rooted in sexism, it is vital to have conversations about sexism in schools in order to deconstruct it. 

Participation in these conversations should not be optional. The school should take action to make participation in dialogues mandatory. These dialogues may appear as school-wide assemblies or smaller interactive workshops that not only inform individuals about the magnitude of gender disparities, but also provide tangible steps for change, such as addressing stereotypes, attentiveness to targeted language, and brainstorming strategies to create more inclusive and empowering classroom settings.

We both have friends who have told us they have felt like they are the only ones reading a text in English class through a feminist lens, and felt the need to justify their interpretation during a group discussion. We also have friends who were reluctant to write papers about gender roles because they believed that they would be perceived as an “angry feminist.” These conversations are not simply a series of observations about how a female character is being oppressed or is defying gender norms. They often reveal the nuanced and complex ways in which a literary text reinforces the gender hierarchy. Even so, neither of us have heard our male peers expand on such commentary in a class discussion, let alone initiate discourse through a feminist lens. We urge our male peers to make an effort to be active participants when we talk about “women’s issues,” because male students have the power to address and end the perpetuation of sexism that contributes to gender disparities.

More efforts need to be made to combat sexism in STEM, and it is equally as important to highlight the accomplishments women have made in STEM fields. Pe accomplishes this through her nonprofit WiTech  — a blog that celebrates women in technology. Her most recent post commemorates women who have been integral in advancing our understanding of computing and programming. These women include Grace Hopper, the developer of FLOW-MATIC, one of the first programming languages, and Katherine Johnson, a NASA employee who verified the calculations of one of the computers used on the Apollo mission. 

Horace Mann should aim to incorporate such important women into its curriculum, and to feature their stories in a way that treats them with the respect and attention they deserve. This would not only provide young women interested in STEM with role models to look up to, but would also urge male students to recognize their privilege.