Don’t Let the Number of Women at Keck Fool You Gender Discrimination Still Exists in STEM

Historically, women have been described as weaker, inferior, more emotional—the list goes on. 

One long-standing argument perpetuating these myths that is of particular interest to those studying the lack of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields is biological determinism. During the Enlightenment, respect for reason and logic privileged scientific ideas as truths without recognition that science, like any other construction of knowledge, is susceptible to bias.

Reproduction is an area where science has served to paint women as an ‘other’ without agency. The power of societal stereotypes of frail women and powerful men is reflected in the sperm-and-egg fairy tale: a valiant, energetic sperm suffering a perilous journey in the scary darkness in order to ‘save’ the soft, lethargic and docile egg.

Even as new data prove an equally active role for the egg in fertilization, modern videos of the process continue to perpetuate the myth of active sperm and passive egg. Cultural bias enforces outdated ideas of men as producers and women as reproducers.

How does this relate to the paucity of women in science, you ask? Even today, women scientists are rare and are described as an unnatural presence of the ‘other’ in a man’s field. While the numbers are more encouraging than they were a couple of decades ago, progress has been slow at best, and the trend may actually be reverting.

I argue that that this imbalance is largely the result of stereotypes that appeal to ‘biological differences’ that we have all heard, and that many of us—women and men—have internalized:

1)     Women are more emotional than reasonable, thus unqualified for science. 

2)     Women are not good at math or quantitative reasoning.

3)     Science is hard and requires long hours, and women are not physically up to the challenge.

Early biological determinism linking women and menstruation to hysteria ultimately constructed a conception of women as irrational and emotional. Neuroscience and statistical studies exaggerated the very small (to nonexistent) discrepancy between the mathematic abilities of men and women. Biological narratives such as the sperm-and-egg fairy tales portray women as physically weak.

When scientific society itself has defined women as unqualified, is it any wonder that women do not run headlong into careers in a field that debases them?

Yes, many women (myself included) still follow their passion for discovery and pursue science degrees, but what happens when they do? Women still leave science at an alarming rate. Perhaps the path to a career in science is as treacherous as the journey of the sperm in the fairy tale, and many of us do not make it to the final goal. But if the journey were equally treacherous for men and women entering scientific fields, the drop-out rates would not be so disproportionate. 

At a national conference where, as a graduate student, I was presenting results that had already been published in a top journal, I was told that it was “cute to see a girl try physical science.” While I was searching for a faculty position, I was asked if “I planned to have children and take time off requiring the department to pay for my replacement.” When instituting the Women in Science Club here in Claremont I was told, “Why are you still so defensive? We let women have faculty jobs these days.”

The last comment may be the most disturbing because it had come from a young, well-meaning male colleague who did not even realize that he had been conditioned to believe that women were being allowed faculty jobs rather than earning them. His comments also reflected the opinion of many: Gender discrimination in science is over, yet the field still enforces outdated notions of normative female behavior.

Too much of the current narrative points out increasing numbers of women studying science in college and decreasing representation of women with Ph.D.s or in faculty positions. The blame is then placed on women who are supposedly unwilling to put in the hours or make sacrifices for these types of careers. Even female students who take the implicit bias test for gender are surprised to find that they, too, equate men with science and business and women with liberal arts.

Interestingly, the Keck Science Department has far more women than men in nearly all of our majors. Students in Keck have a very differently gendered experience in the classroom than in most institutions. They have their stereotypes about who science challenges. By having a critical mass of women majoring in (and teaching in) science, students here no longer see science as a male enterprise.

However, this can have a negative side: 5C students may be surprised by the gender discrimination they face when they leave Claremont. I have heard from a number of alumnae who have been surprised by the significant discrimination they face in their graduate programs. It is for this reason that I still push to have the Women in Science Club and Celebrating Women in Science Speaker Series.

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