Thursday, August 10

Women in STEM

With the very recent case of a Google senior engineer being fired over a 10-page ‘manifesto’ explaining that the low number of women in the STEM field (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) has nothing to do with bias during hiring or the sexist reaction of male colleagues, but with the fact that women are, to put it simple, biologically bad at all of the above (you know, STEM, science, technology, etc.). They get too little testosterone before they’re born, apparently. Which makes me wonder whether or not that problem then could be solved with some prenatal injections of testosterone. (NOT.) Here’s the link to a Gizmondo reprint (also includes the company’s answer through the appropriate vice president in charge of diversity and other things).

He, like many people before him (and, unfortunately, probably also many people after him), uses the good old ‘women are better at social and artistic work and far worse at anything which can be considered systemic work’ prejudice. Why is that a prejudice? Go and Google (yup, use their search engine) people like Emmy Noether or Annie Jump Cannon (yes, that really was her name). Annie, for instance, was doing a job which required a very good grasp of science: she was a Harvard Computer. Those were, long before the computer as we know it today (the electronic device) became a thing, low-class assistants at universities who spent their whole day computing data - and they were overwhelmingly female. They, essentially, did what computer programs do today. And Annie was especially good at finding new stars through her calculations, even devising a new system (so much for systemic work) of classifying stars. The system is still used today. Emmy Noether, on the other hand, was one of the most brilliant mathematicians who ever lived. But, of course, mathematics aren’t part of the STEM field (since it’s now only the STE field).

Then there’s the ‘women are not speaking out and asking for a raise, then they complain they don’t get it’ thing. I’m still sure that if a woman did that, she’d be out of a job, not getting a raise, because it’s not what women do. And it’s not what men expect, so it would shock that boss to have a female employee ask him in a no-nonsense way which a man might use.

Next comes the ‘women don’t rise in hierarchy, because they’re not ready to spend all those long hours working which are required for a leader position’ spiel we’re also familiar with. First of all, a jacket over a chair’s back doesn’t signify long hours of work. But, yes, in middle management, you usually do a lot of long hours. Most women, however, never get to that stage, they are kept further down, ignored when it comes to promotion, pushed into jobs at the company where there is not further space for promotion.

‘Women are more cooperative than competitive.’ I guess this guy never came close to any ‘Miss something’ contest - women are highly competitive among themselves. But even if they are not: I can’t see where in the STEM field competitive behaviour would be better than cooperation. More eyes and more minds equal more work getting done. Sharing new information instead of keeping it to yourself (so you can get all the praise) might lead to quicker development.

The guy seems to think women don’t choose STEM mostly for the work. The truth is most women don’t choose STEM, because of what you hear about that ‘boys club’ behaviour towards female colleagues. Like that guy who complained that he can’t work with women around, because they’re distracting. Like ignoring and belittling female colleagues. Like that other guy who thought that during a panel at a science conference he should explain her work to a female colleague in front of all (and who was only stopped by a woman from the audience calling him out and telling him to shut up and let her talk, because the host was actually not up to his job). Women hear these stories and decide not to go into science, technology, engineering, or mathematics. They have what we usually call a sense of self-protection. They are ready to work long hours and devote their life to STEM, they’re just not willing to do it in an atmosphere in which they will constantly be challenged, overlooked, harassed, or belittled. Personally, I can’t find a fault with that decision, but it makes things worse for the few who are brave enough. With more women coming into the field, they could form alliances to protect themselves and fight back. One woman is easily belittled or harassed, a group can stand up to those doing the belittling and harassing a lot better.

Society starts early to teach kids, boys and girls alike, what they should strive for. It teaches boys to be competitive and girls to be ready to compromise. It teaches boys that they need to work hard in their future chosen field and girls to look out for those hard-working boys so they can marry the right guy. It tells stories about the prince rescuing the princess, but few stories about the princess saving her prince (and those stories so far haven’t been picked up by Disney for large feature films). It tells girls to be ‘nice’ (which does not include talking loud, being decisive, and telling a guy to go to hell for bothering them) and boys that ‘boys will be boys’ when they’re doing something wrong. You know, like telling a talk-show host behind the scenes that when you’re rich, you can grab them all by the pussy.

Society also tells girls how boys are better at science and maths and that they shouldn’t, in essence, burden their pretty head with such stuff. Girls with an interest in the STEM field have to fight an uphill battle from early on, many tire at some point, give in, and go into other jobs. Teachers will not recognize their interest or ability, but still prefer the boys. Boys will make fun of them, girls will make fun of them. Relatives might tell them that it’s not what a girl does, that they should develop a more appropriate interest. So some give in during school. Some give in during college, when things become even worse in male-dominated classes where they are ridiculed or simply ignored. Some give in once they’re out of college and looking for work, only to find themselves cast aside for men who might not have better marks, but are in possession of a penis and a Y chromosome. The boys club does protect its members well - just as similar clubs in field like the law or high-level business positions. Few go into the fields, usually stranded in a low-level position, ignored by their superiors who’d rather promote a guy - because we all know all women will drop out and found a family sooner or later. Or for some similarly stupid reason - few of those superiors will admit that they do it, because they believe that a man is better suited, even if evidence at hand suggests something else.

So, yes, there’s fewer women in the STEM field and as long as the perception of a female scientist, technician, engineer, or mathematician doesn’t change, that won’t change much, either. There are quite some women who do not strive for a family (including those who get themselves sterilized at 20 these days - I wish I would have gotten that chance myself). There are as many intelligent women as there are intelligent men. Women have been computers in the past (NASA even had their female computers check the results of the first electronic computers for possible mistakes), they can do numbers. A woman wrote the first programming language of the world - for a machine which didn’t even exist (check Ada Lovelace).