I feel that, perhaps out of a selfish desire to seem a little better than I actually am, I ought to preface this commentary a little. If the friend of mine who invited me to this event were ever to read this post, I feel she would be rather hurt, or that her opinion of me might change for the worse. Maybe at best, she might think I’m a little judgmental. I do care about her opinion to some degree. But you have to understand, this was my first introduction to people who are pursuing jobs in the same field as me and face some of the same challenges. I could not possibly spare them my critical lens at such an opportune moment.
Last Wednesday, I went to an event for women in STEM fields. The guest of honor was Prasha Dutra, who started the blog Her STEM Story to connect women in STEM fields all over the world. Dutra interviewed three women on a panel about their experiences in STEM fields (I arrived an hour late, so I missed a lot of the panel, but managed to catch the last 20 minutes or so). I think the purpose of the event was to give the attending women a sense that they are not alone and to get a chance to network a little. For me, however, it was far more interesting as a sociological study of The STEM Field Woman. She is a fascinating species, not one to disappoint at all if I am to dissect her critically.
(It should be noted, there was a comment made at some point during the event that women in STEM fields have a tendency to “bring each other down”. I would frame that observation entirely differently. I believe women in any field bring each other down. Women who don’t even work bring each other down. This is a result of living in a sexist society: the oppressed perpetuate their own oppression. Anyway, I am also aware that in this commentary, it will seem as though I am doing precisely this–I am “bringing other women down” by judging their idiosyncracies. In my defense, I would argue that if women in STEM fields, or any field for that matter, are brought down by something so flimsy as the commentary of a first-year, community college student, they didn’t have much power to begin with. And the latter is not true–women have power, as much as any human being does, but that is for a whole other post. I would say the problem is, they have been told lies their whole life, which they now believe to be true.)
Anyway, I found most of the advice and/or concerns expressed by the women present to be rather boring. It was the kind of surface-level, “how do I life?” stuff that (condescendingly, I know) I am either good at or if I am not, I choose not to be for specific reasons. It was interesting to compare this crowd to the social activist crowd. At this point, I have attended so many gather-ins, seminars, rallies, and events centered on social justice issues that the discourse that takes place in them tends to bore me as well. The questions are all “This gargantuan, systemic institution sucks. How do we powerless students make it better?” And the answer is always, “with hope and charisma!” Gag. But there’s a pattern present there, is there not? I feel like people at social-justice related events feel they have a right to complain about how much society sucks. They feel the because institutions do very little to address identity politics (or validate them), they ought to be condemned, and that their condemning of institutional politics is a Very Good Solution.
Not this crowd. Oh no. Women in STEM fields often start their stories very similarly to the social justice crowd: with We Are At The Bottom. The pattern takes a very different trajectory, though. Soon, we hear the person in question’s illustrious school career (first I was failing, but then I went to all the tutors and all the TAs and all the office hours, and then I passed! And I passed again! I got all the good grades!). You will note the lack of vulnerability in this story. We completely skip over the pain and embarrassment of being a struggling student, which so many people in STEM fields are, and where I think the true potential of community building lies. So many STEM students are international, speak tons of different languages, and come from working class backgrounds. No one takes the opportunity to bring that to the forefront of the conversation, nor do they talk about the challenges of assimilating (or, perhaps not assimilating as the case may be) to the American workforce as an educated professional.
The women would then typically progress to talking about overcoming all odds and landing a great job with a good company. Then they talk about how even though they seem confident and sparkly, they still have gaping self-esteem holes that they “still struggle” with to this day. They also give the impression of being very, very type A–they may not have been consciously aware of it, but the amount that coffee is talked about (not to mention the amount of wine being consumed in the room, or the number of times I have walked into a class and smelled cigarette smoke) indicates a tendency to be workaholics. I get the impression that even if a woman in a STEM field acknowledges she has struggles–whether they are career-related or social–she either self-medicates in order to cope or ignores it by throwing herself at her work.
And I have to admit, that makes me more than a little sad. I want better for my fellow women in STEM fields. I forget sometimes that I have access to an incredibly supportive community in RC that would not allow me to wallow in self-doubt even if I wanted to. I wish every woman working in STEM had that. Maybe she wouldn’t be so transparent to me, then.
I suppose I could go on. There were a few irksome dynamics in the room, such as the way white women address the concerns of Asian immigrants in the room. I could tell I was also in a very straight crowd by the amount people talk about having supportive “boyfriends and husbands”. But I honestly feel like even those concerns go right back to the root that I was talking about earlier–none of these women want to be honest with each other. None of them wants to talk about how it is hard to speak up in a classroom of mostly men. It is hard as hell to feel confident asking questions when you’re scared of being judged and there is an overwhelming power dynamic in the room. And it is sad that women feel they need partnership with a man in order to overcome obstacles. It was obvious to me that the women who were single felt they had some kind of shortcoming–they kept talking about how they are used to being alone, comfortable even, being alone. But when someone talks about being alone a lot, to me it usually means it is something they think about a lot, and why should that take up so much of anyone’s focus? Would a man focus on it that much?
I don’t have the answers to those questions. I do think that adequate support for women in STEM fields requires a psychological component: women need to believe in their brilliance and creativity. I think people ought to be able to talk about when things are truly challenging without feeling as though admitting to mistakes will define who they are. I want for all women to be able to do that.