Women & STEM
I’m starting to become somewhat unhappy with a current trend I’m seeing on-line: increasingly indignant or strident calls for women to “step up” and start more enthusiastically participating in STEM (or the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics)… purportedly so as to give women more of a voice in society, so as to change it for the better. I have a number of issues with this assertion:
- It presents lack of women in STEM as a woman’s problem — they need to get off their dead butts and get with it!
- It assumes the arts are pretty much valueless to the true running of society; and…
- It presents men’s desires/fields/whatever as the goal and source of power, which does nothing to alleviate society’s misogyny — which means that will doubtless carry over into the STEM jobs just as it has in every other previously male-dominated field.
At some point I may write more about #3, but right now I’m just going to give a perspective on issues #1 (since I personally lived what I’ll be relating below) & 2… because I’ve felt great sympathy and admiration for Ada Lovelace since I first heard about her.
So… issue #1: the idea that lack of women in STEM is a women’s issue because they just need to get with the program.
Several years ago I originally returned to college so as to get a major in computer science and a minor in anthropology. I remember my computer classes painfully well. The first computer classes were wonderfully fascinating — I so loved the ingenious puzzle that coding was, to me! Plus I had a professor who was actually working in the field, rather than simply being an ivory tower recluse. In that first elective class there were no more than 20 of us students, and the prof was quiet but very smart — to the point that he rapidly figured out that asking, “Does everyone get this?” would get him a silent (even if confused) class… but asking, “Would anyone like me to repeat this?” would get relieved and enthusiastic nods from the confused.
Then I attended a required class — what I now refer to as a “cattle-call” class of something like 200+ students. It was held in an auditorium where the chairs sloped down to the stage. The first few classes everyone was participating as enthusiastically as that first class I’d taken. However, right in the center, at about the professor’s eye level, was a small group of 3 to 5 young white guys who would always shout out the answers — even when the professor had only asked for a volunteer to reply.
It didn’t take long, of course, for the professor to start deferring to those guys, and everyone else in the class just started falling silent — because they never got a chance to answer, or even ask questions. The prof would run through a problem, turn to the class and say, “Everyone got that?” and the guys in the front would say, “Yeah!” and the professor would look pleased and go on to the next problem. He would do this… even when I could see others looking as confused as I often was myself.
To be fair, there were other white males in the class who didn’t get it, along with all the rest of us… but they too tended to be quiet in the face of the aggressively shouted competence of the “favored sons.” Unfortunately the class was on a critical subject in computer programming, but because I didn’t get it at all and was too embarrassed to ask questions in class, I did very poorly. That subsequently affected both my self-confidence and my ability to actually do the coding — because I still didn’t understand this subject. Eventually that lack of understanding undermined my intended degree, and I ended up majoring in anthropology (with honors) and minoring in sociology instead.
In retrospect, if I was too intimidated to object in class (I was) then I really should have gone and complained to the professor during his office hours. But again, it’s much easier to realize this with a decade or two of hindsight and self-confidence under my belt. Speaking just for myself, it was a small step from a perplexed, “why is no one else objecting? It must be just me — clearly I’m just imagining other folks’ confusion,” to the self-imposed isolation of, “everyone else but me must be getting this — maybe I’m not smart enough to do this,” to it becoming a self-shaming and self-fulfilling prophecy reflected in my grades.
So if a clueless old white male professor favoring a handful of loud young white men over everyone else in his class is defined as a “woman’s problem”… then yes, under that strikingly twisted definition, the lack of women in STEM is indeed solely a “woman’s problem.”
Next, issue #2: the arts being perceived as pretty much valueless to the true running of society.
On this I deeply sympathize with the Lady Augusta Ada Byron Lovelace (1815-1852), the first computer programmer. Ada’s mother had her child rigorously schooled in mathematics and logic in an attempt to protect Ada — the only legitimate child of the wildly notorious and flamboyant romantic poet Lord Byron — from what she perceived as his insanity. Despite Ada’s interest in those subjects, she was also fascinated by both her father and poetry — which her mother stringently discouraged. At one point Ada exasperatedly wrote in a letter to her mother, “You will not concede me philosophical poetry. Invert the order! Will you give me poetical philosophy, poetical science?”
The separation of knowledge into the strongly estranged “arts” and “sciences” is, to me as well as to the Lady Lovelace, as artificial as separating mind and body or logic and emotion. I’ve always believed, for example, that justice should be tempered with mercy, or that ethics should be the bedrock of scientific inquiry. Ada herself commented: “The intellectual, the moral, the religious seem to me all naturally bound up and interlinked together in one great and harmonious whole.” She expanded that statement by explaining:
Imagination is the Discovering Faculty, pre-eminently… It is that which feels & discovers what is, the REAL which we see not, which exists not for our senses… Mathematical science shows what is. It is the language of unseen relations between things… Imagination too shows what is… Hence she is or should be especially cultivated by the truly Scientific, those who wish to enter into the worlds around us!
Unfortunately Ada’s poetical science and philosophy still resides more in imagination rather than enriching both those male-dominated fields. As a consequence of our insisting on these enforced, artificial binaries, I believe we as a society lose much richness and beauty in our lives, as well as a fuller understanding of the glorious complexity of our universe. Honestly, though, the fruitful intermingling of science, the arts, and philosophy is a subject so deep and wide as to merit an entire book, rather than just my idle speculations. Oh, wait… there’s already a book on the subject. It’s both brilliant and heavy going — much like Ada’s writings on Babbage’s proposed Analytical Machine. You’re welcome! ;)