How the Effort to Increase Gender Diversity in STEM Falls Short

The lack of diversity in STEM fields is something many people have been working to fix, especially recently. And that’s great; the sheer number of white boys with the exact same haircut and outfits that I see every day in the engineering buildings and classes on campus is staggering. Jokes aside, I really wish there were more women and people of color in the STEM classes at our university. The sad part is, our university’s student body is more diverse than the national average, which means most colleges in the US are less diverse (if that even seemed possible).

We can't deny that there’s an effort being made to make STEM fields more diverse. After all, parents and teachers try to encourage women to engage in math and science classes, and scholarships do exist specifically for women in these fields (although, tales of these scholarships are exaggerated, being a woman does not mean you instantly get into STEM majors free, and everyone can apply for the majority of the scholarships in question, not just women).

Important time and energy has even been devoted to exploring the gender bias that forces young women to worry about their clothes and appearance, while young men are allowed to get dirty, pursue science and math freely, and be reckless.  This bias certainly has an effect, and is an issue that needs to be fixed, as gender roles are well... complete bullshit. Our brains are so wired for learning over instinct that babies can’t walk or even see, and you expect me to believe that gender roles were more evolutionarily important to keep instinctively ingrained in us than walking? No, gender roles are contrived to enforce patriarchal ideals, and the nature vs nurture debate is so complex that the two cannot be separated. Did you know that babies have been known to cry in accents based on those around them within the first week of life? We are pattern-mimicking machines from our birth, it’s no wonder that we start to mimic the stereotypes and biases around us.

In my experience, however, it’s not just the gender bias that keeps women away from STEM, and it’s certainly not the difficulty of classes; one of the only women in my major and my graduating year kicks my ass (and everyone else’s) in every class we’ve had together. I realize that’s anecdotal evidence, but I challenge anyone who thinks that women are less intelligent or geared more towards interpersonal intelligence than logical, for the same reasons I mentioned above.

Most women I know have very little issue doing things that they’ve been told are “for men"--pathways they are discouraged from pursuing. But, rather, they (reasonably) hate being isolated and mistreated because of their gender. And that’s exactly what men studying STEM tend to do. The problem is much bigger than we realize. Because as with everything, we focus on how women must change to accommodate men’s behavior, rather than how men are actively alienating women and hurting them. This pattern repeats over and over, from victim blaming sexual assault victims and shaming women for the horrible actions of their partners.

Here, we’re pushing to include women in STEM and teaching them to pursue it, but the problem isn’t that women are not interested enough in STEM. That barely scratches the surface. The problem is that men, especially in large groups, alienate and scare women into leaving spaces that men feel they own. I’ve seen many examples of this, there’s a man in my major who told a classmate of mine that she was “too pretty for this,” and should “drop out and become a stripper instead” when she complained of struggling with the material that we were all struggling with. I have no idea if any action was taken to report this, as it should be considered sexual harassment. The fact remains, however, that this man remains in my major and is currently in a class of mine, repeating his pattern of flirting with every woman in the room. When he’s only surrounded by other men, he talks about women like they’re simple prizes to be tricked and won.

The problem, however, isn’t simply men like this. Yes, they should be kicked out of the college and tried for sexual harassment (as dramatic as it sounds), but they aren’t the only problem. What about the men who let him say these things around them without any repercussions? What about the faculty that know what he does, but see no issue in it? The obstacle to women in STEM is not the horrible sexist man, as women generally must deal with them everywhere. The obstacle is the system that allows a man to be sexist in classroom settings with no consequences. The obstacle is that women are such a minority in student and faculty that sexist men can get away with alienating them and saying cruel and horrible things. The obstacle is men that sit back and allow this behavior to become normalized, joked about, and go unpunished.

These are, unfortunately, much harder issues to solve than simply trying to get women more interested in STEM. Or rather, the problems are just as easily solved, but they involve holding men accountable, and therefore are much less likely to happen in such a male-dominated space. Instead of just pushing women to become mathematicians and scientists, we must push men in STEM to see women as human beings, and we must believe women when they tell us about their experiences with these classes and majors.