I’m a “Woman in STEM”—I used to love saying that. It felt important to have a title that recognized my love for science, as well as the challenges associated with entering male-dominated fields. And it’s a label that proved true—I entered Georgetown majoring in Biology of Global Health. Over time, however, my relationship with “Woman in STEM” has become fraught. Rather than a motivating label, it sets unfair cultural expectations of achievement and commitment for women who work in STEM fields and implies the inferiority of those who don’t.
The phrase “Women in STEM” has been a two-pronged identifier, working to both promote solidarity amongst women already in the fields and encourage more to enter. These efforts are undeniably important, especially when only 28 percent of STEM jobs are held by women, and many encounter gender-based pay gaps or workplace sexism. Further, women in scientific fields must repeatedly prove their competence when people perceive them to be less capable and objective due to their gender.
The term, however, is not limited to the educational or vocational sectors. It is also common in normal conversations, in popular media, and is featured in institutions such as the Smithsonian Museum. Because of this, “Women in STEM” asks for more than its textbook definition—a woman who studies or works in a STEM field.
In popular media, women in STEM are portrayed as devoting all their time to the sciences. Further, academica generally views them as more intelligent than other women due to their devotion to subjects that have long been perceived as harder and more valuable—a perception created by male dominance rather than actual rigor as evidenced by the connection between the proportion of women in certain sciences and the perception of those fields as less rigorous or trustworthy “soft sciences”. With these colloquial connotations of the label, the societal emphasis on “Women in STEM” has unintended consequences that are pushing down the very women it is meant to support.
I’ve experienced some of these consequences first hand. In office hours for a computer science course, my professor told me he expected me to do better than my male peers because women usually excelled in his class. Though this lighthearted statement was likely meant as a compliment, it marked me. I became worried that any failures of mine would discredit the successes of the women who came before me. I put in a disproportionate amount of work to stay at the top of the class, a habit that interfered with my focus on other classes and social life.
I also couldn’t help but feel guilty when, in my freshman spring, I decided to change my major to Justice and Peace Studies, functionally severing my ties to the world of STEM majors. Despite excelling in science and math courses, I realized my science major felt tedious. The higher level classes were no longer compelling and didn’t seem oriented towards the areas in which I wanted to work. Now, my only tie to the title of “Woman in STEM” is my computer science minor and my job as a TA in the same department.
Because of this shift in my major, I hesitate to use the label. The term’s all-or-nothing use makes me feel that, because I am no longer devoting my life to studying science, I am an imposter, a fake woman in STEM.
By leaving behind the title, I also worry I am neglecting the opportunity to use my scientific aptitude to close the gender gap. The exclusivity of the title makes it feel as though only a few women are capable of changing the perception of women as less scientifically or intellectually competent. By not using this opportunity, there is now one less woman to make a change. I am thus failing all the women in STEM who endure male-dominated fields.
Sitting with these feelings about leaving STEM, I have realized that it is not just women in the sciences who are being hurt, but really women in all fields.
There are far fewer empowering labels or support programs in other fields. While this may be because the gender gaps in other fields are not as wide, the absence still sends a clear message that propelling women into STEM fields should be prioritized. A clear value statement for STEM marks the fields considered the most important—namely the sciences. This emphasis can ignore the issues women face in other fields. This makes it easy for women in other fields to feel as if their intellect and paths are less valuable than STEM.
The extra value placed on women in scientific fields is more than just implied. When my friend, who had thrived in advanced science classes throughout high school, chose to study government instead of biology, her friend, a female engineering major, said that they had “lost another one to the humanities.” The reality of women leaving the sciences for the humanities because of misogynist pressure within the field can be curbed through programs designed to aid women in STEM. But sometimes women, such as my friend, choose not to pursue scientific fields due to more interest in other subjects. In these cases, young women should have the freedom to choose their field of study without judgment, counterpressure, or devaluation of their skills. This is, however, impossible when we always see women leaving STEM as a loss rather than a value-neutral event, as we do for men.
All of this is not to discount the movement that aims to promote gender equality in the sciences, but we must consider the unintended consequences of our attempts to support women in STEM. We must think critically about the impacts of our efforts on both women in STEM and in other fields. We must work to find ways to counteract any of the negative pressures and implications that the movement has caused.
I am a woman in STEM. But I am also a woman in the humanities. And that does not make me any less valuable.