Today we see women in lab coats and safety goggles holding beakers on covers of college pamphlets. We see female surgeons in TV shows such as Grey’s Anatomy. And today we even discuss great female scientists, such as Jane Goodall, in biology classes. As a women I feel I speak for many in saying all of that makes me proud. But how far have we truly come? As we celebrate the number of women in STEM2 and commemorate pioneers such as Katherine Johnson, we must be careful to not romanticize, but rather continue building on the progress we have made.
Throughout history men and women have held themselves to different standards. For this reason only the most prestigious female academics have pursued STEM2 careers. It is the women who will make discoveries and reshape understandings that stay in these very challenging fields. Men however, can be simply average scientists and mathematicians but remain confident in their career choices. I would argue that this has not changed. Even though many women have broken into fields like biology and environmental science, the percentages in fields such as computer science and astronomy are incredibly low. At an undergraduate women in Physics conference, there was a small lecture, or lesson revolving around women being perfectionists. A study had shown women responding in incredibly disappointed manners to grades that men had seemed pleased with. Why would this be? I would argue that this report does not attack the standards that men set for themselves, but rather highlights how hard women are on themselves. Receiving a “B” or “C” in vector calculus should not divert someone from pursuing a STEM2 field. Men still seem to understand this better than women; this is a potential reason for them to remain outnumbering the women so greatly.
But with the great strides in women’s involvement in STEM2, why would a woman feel the need to drop her studies or switch fields if not at the top of her classes? Perhaps it is because she is scared of what people might say. Perhaps failing to get all A’s means losing the evidence that she belongs in such a challenging field. This cold be an inherent fear that women have developed throughout years of oppression and being directed into more typically female positions. It could also be a desire to prove that women are equally as capable as men, and a fear of being the girl who supports historical opinions with her mediocrity.
The fact that we see more women in nursing, biology or environmental science, is not because women in general prefer those fields. It is because we have been pushed towards them–shaped like the bacteria cultures on our petri dishes. Fields like physics and astronomy have far fewer women, just as you see less female doctors and surgeons. While these are no more important than the others, they are considered to be harder, and although women slaved over household chores, raising children, cooking and making clothing, their “resumes” do not seem to have “hard worker” written on them. Women still do not seem naturally fit for such rigorous fields in society’s eyes.
I had an internship my senior year of high school in which I was lucky enough to shadow and work with many skilled engineers. None of them were women. At the midpoint of my time there, one of the men asked me, to my disbelief, “Why I didn’t do something more fitting, like bake cupcakes.” I simply addressed my lack of skills as baker and tried to move on. But should I have been so shocked? Society has not yet fully accepted the image of women in STEM2, and this proved it.
During another situation, this time more personal, my grandfather was asking me and all of my cousins what we were going to study in college. He was excited when Kimmie answered a nutritionist and Gina a teacher, and thrilled to hear Lucas and Austin planned to study computer science. However, when I told my grandfather that I planned to study engineering, he asked, “Why not be nurse?” Now he meant nothing against my intelligence nor my capabilities. He was genuinely curious as to why I would not be a nurse. See, there is this “resume” that all women carry with them–whether earned or not, intentionally or without even knowing it. People just know that women are caretakers. They just know that our compassion, and kindness allows us to help people. As was often said during the time of WWII, we are not simply mothers, but the mothers of the world. And so, a nurse seems fitting, whereas an engineer would not.
While women should be proud of earning the places in STEM2 that we have, this is not a settling point. The female scientists that battled in the past, would not be satisfied today, and neither should we. There is still so much room in STEM2 for women, and many more pioneering women are on their way.