Kincart: Stop Using “Women in STEM” Rhetoric

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(Courtesy Pixabay)

By Sydney Kincart, Opinion Writer

 

As an academically ambitious high school student, I was pushed to join the robotics team. I relished in a community of peers similarly driven to use problem-solving and critical thinking skills. But there was one problem — I wasn’t interested in STEM. The growth of TikToks echoing experiences similar to mine helped me understand that I am not alone in feeling pressured into STEM. Women and other minorities across the country are surrounded by media, encouraging them to pursue a career in STEM. On the University of Utah’s campus alone, there are over 80 engagement resources for increasing underrepresented students and youth in STEM. However, these programs seldom address the barriers faced by marginalized people in the field. Thus, they increase the pressures that women feel to pursue STEM without addressing some systemic barriers that make it harder to find success once there. While the prevalent notion of “Women in STEM” appears to be a positive for some, it can also be toxic and alienating to others. We need to focus more on those hurt by this rhetoric.

The prominence of “Women in STEM” rhetoric can lead women to a field that is right now emotionally exhausting. Students today feel an added pressure to break barriers in STEM. Because women are a minority in the field, they are the ones breaking these barriers. These pressures are compounded by the microaggressions experienced by women in STEM that discourage participation in their field. For those who stay, microaggressions add pressure to succeed that males do not experience. Thus, women working in STEM are more likely to say their gender made it harder for them to succeed at work. The reality is, as women respond to the pressures of pursuing a STEM career, they find themselves in hostile environments. Women are being encouraged to join a field that has yet to be inclusive. Additionally, nonbinary people are also left behind by the “Women in STEM” rhetoric. Their identity is overlooked by these phrases of empowerment, yet they are the ones grappling with the exclusivity of basic amenities like single-gender bathrooms.

But what leads someone to put themselves in such a toxic situation? It could be that STEM is a lucrative field. Thus, the quickest path to financial freedom in a country full of gender inequality comes through STEM. However, countries with more gender equality are more likely to have fewer women in STEM careers. According to researchers Gijsbert Stoet and David Gery, “Countries that empower women also empower them, indirectly, to pick whatever career they’d enjoy most and be best at.” Not only is promoting women in STEM indicative of the rampant gender inequality in our country, but it discredits the work of other women who are pursuing careers they enjoy. When we hold STEM as a greater calling than other fields dominated by women, we’re hurting our ultimate goal of workplace parity. It’s time we accept that no career has the moral high ground over another — and do something about it.

An increase in women entering STEM isn’t enough — it only creates a negative feedback loop. We must take proactive steps to change the environment before promoting the idea of women in STEM. Let’s make STEM inclusive of women and nonbinary employees by creating an environment where gender minorities feel comfortable. This comfort allows for those most marginalized to give feedback and suggestions without fear of repercussions. We can also refrain from asking non-STEM majors, “What are you planning to do with that?” while discussing their degree. This shows an appreciation for the creativity, critical thinking and social skills emphasized by a liberal arts education. Most importantly, being aware of the pressures created by the women in STEM rhetoric allows us to limit this speech. After all, these phrases of so-called empowerment can actually hurt.

I write this as a woman who has experienced the pressures of STEM and spent a lot of high school longing to be a woman in STEM. Nonetheless, I’m immensely happy in the social sciences and humanities. Many of my close friends are pursuing STEM, and I am so grateful for their work — but it’s not for everybody. I reflect on the brochures at my local college displaying the word “STEMinist” and the sticker on my laptop that read “Silly boys, robots are for girls.” These influences once had me contemplating a different path, but now they lead me to advocate for those hurt by this narrative. Let’s give equal attention to women and nonbinary people in nonprofits, teaching, food service and other less advertised industries. It’s time we turn the conversation around and give a voice to those hurt by the dominating rhetoric of “Women in STEM.”

 

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@sydjstar