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‘Women in STEM’ – empowerment or disempowerment?

We’ve all heard the phrase ‘woman in STEM’; the term is now so well-known that it has left its textbook definition behind and become a sort of half-ironic, half-genuine, inside joke. I’ll use it to comfort my biologist friend through her multiple hour-long lab sessions, I’ll even use it to refer to myself after I submit my latest linguistics essay (I know, not a real STEM degree). But even in these more ironic uses, the label ‘woman in STEM’ still carries connotations of merit and success. It’s supposed to be a tool of empowerment: a reminder to women that even though STEM fields are often places of discrimination, they can overcome these difficulties. But more and more I’m beginning to realise that this is not the case at all. In fact, all the term ‘women in STEM’ does is disempower. 

It is true that STEM fields are not usually welcoming environments for women. Not only are women grossly underrepresented, but even once the door is opened, obstacles persist: stereotypes, gender-biased assessment, and psychological pressure – to name just a few. We really should be looking for any possible way to rectify this. This is where the label ‘woman in STEM’ comes in – it offers women validation for their ability and accomplishments within this environment.

The idea of ‘women in STEM’ tends to encourage people to only view the work of women in STEM fields through a gendered lens, a perception with which the work of men is never tinged. More and more female scientists are expressing their desire for their work to be valued in its own right and without this seemingly ineradicable gendered dimension. Friends of mine who study STEM degrees tell me about feeling as if they cannot shake off this aspect of their identity in their study. The term ‘woman in STEM’ doesn’t encourage them but serves as a constant reminder of the difficulties they face. From male-dominated lecture halls to a lack of women role models in STEM, they are already painfully aware of this. And this tendency to focus on the hardships of women in STEM doesn’t end even when you reach high-levels of success. Attending an all-girls school, I was frequently told about successful STEM women, such as Ada Lovelace and Katherine Johnson, during my school education. But these stories always seemed to focus on the obstacles they had to overcome to accomplish anything rather than on the accomplishments themselves. The stories I heard about successful men never did. 

Empowering women in STEM, but not women in humanities, is also undeniably problematic. While the success of an individual is not the absence of one’s own, the encouragement of women in STEM fields has led to an inherently sexist depreciation of the work of women in the humanities. The term connotes a sense of superiority which unavoidably implies superiority over humanities. The binary distinction between STEM and the humanities is deeply embedded at all levels of education. They are pitted against each other; every student has to pick a side. I have experienced this distinction most acutely within my family. Both of my parents are doctors, while my sister and I have opted to pursue humanities;although lighthearted, there is a sense of competition. It usually comes out during typical familial arguments over board games, as both pairs assert their area of expertise to be superior. While meant in jest, it does show how deep this fight between STEM and humanities goes. 

More often than not, STEM comes out victorious. STEM degrees are widely considered to be more valuable and employable, and as I’m reaching the end of the second year of my humanities degree, I’m experiencing first-hand the worry of ‘what on earth am I going to do with a languages degree?’ I used to see this fear as a reasonable one, and while there is some validity to it – STEM careers are typically some of the highest-earning – the difference is not quite so drastic as it’s often made out to be. After all, the success of STEM students does not equate to the failure of the humanities students. Statistics showing that the proportion of STEM graduates who secured a job within a year of graduation is only 1% higher than the proportion of those with humanities degrees prove this. So if STEM and humanities are of equal value, why does STEM always win? Granted several factors play a role, but it is no coincidence that the career path deemed less important is that which is female-dominated. I would argue that if it were STEM fields that tended to attract more women than men, the roles would be reserved. 

‘Women in STEM’ may just be a group of words with good intentions behind it,but in reality, the label does not empower women in those fields or in any others. Rather, it bolsters a set of damaging and inhibiting notions for women in STEM fields, all while undermining the work of women in the humanities. Perhaps it is time to stop viewing the term as a feminist force, and instead start seeing it as a tool of disempowerment. 

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