STEM and the peculiar absence of women

STEM and the peculiar absence of women

The debate on female underrepresentation in the  Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields largely has two sides. One argues that socialisation is to be blamed while the other stands for the idea that there are certain biological differences between men and women, which results in them having different interests. Women, proponents of this model claim, don’t develop a fascination with the mechanical and the scientific. Instead, they are predisposed to developing emotional intelligence and personal relationships. This faulty cliché works on the flawed assumption that men are incapable of developing emotional relationships. 

 

I think the most important thing is to understand that genetic factors cannot be blamed in isolation. If it was genetic, then there would be a complete absence of women from the top of scientific fields, not paucity. The very fact that there is an underrepresentation means that some women have accomplished what they ‘genetically’ can’t. With this context, it becomes difficult to buy into the narrative that women are genetically disadvantaged. So, what is the alternative? Tayloe Washburn, CEO and regional dean of Northeastern University, Seattle presented a viable option- video games. He said, “We’ve tried everything from classroom programs to after-school initiatives, yet the data suggests we still have a long way to go. A tool that has not yet been used, with girls, in particular, is games.” In the STEM field renowned for its innovation, it certainly is worth a shot.

 

Throughout history, women have been subject to discrimination. While the feminist movement certainly made some corrective steps, it would be foolish to assume that we have attained equality, let alone in a field as male-dominated as STEM. Patriarchy is entrenched in our society and plays out in a variety of ways, sometimes in an implicit manner. There is a figurative ‘glass ceiling’ in society, which holds people back from achieving their true potential. This glass ceiling can be generalised to the systemic obstacles that people from lower classes, castes, and other disadvantaged communities have to battle extra hard to garner credibility.  However, today, women are breaking through glass ceilings. The final question which must be answered, thus, becomes how did this glass ceiling come about? 

 

This is where I think the idea that socialisation is the root cause behind underrepresentation gains maximum credence. The obstacles holding women back are, in fact, man-made. Over centuries, the ill-treatment of women became a normalised part of society. Its aftershocks can be felt to this day, as men often dismiss the opinions expressed by women on grounds of their perceived inferiority. The colloquial term for this, ‘mansplaining’ sums up the way society is built. At birth, both boys and girls react to objects and motion in the same manner. An infant does not see sex, let alone pass value judgements on which sex is better. The reason boys might have more ‘mechanical interests’ than girls is because they are taught to play with Legos, while a girl is often taught to dress up a Barbie. This fundamental difference is imposed on the children by their parents. The parents too cannot be blamed for holding their female children back. They have internalised the narrative that males and females have certain ascribed gender roles that they must follow in society. Hence, boys and girls must be provided differing upbringings so they can grow up to fit their prescribed role. It is clear, therefore, that from birth, women are disadvantaged because of the way society treats them as inferior and incapable. 

 

Personally, I am most convinced by the idea that socialisation is to blame for the underrepresentation of women in the STEM field. The only way to create a truly level playing field is to change the way society perceives sex and to break the idea of one being superior to the other. 

 

Aryaman Sood

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Aryaman Sood

aryaman.sood_ug21@ashoka.edu.in

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