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are STEM fields too mean for women?

This article has been making the rounds in the women engineer discussions lately: Class of 2013: What's Pushing Women Out of the Sciences.

It's a short piece based on a thesis project on why there aren't more women in engineering. Women who'd once pursued STEM fields but later dropped out were interviewed about what drove them away, and most of them said they just didn't like the competitive culture, the weed-out classes, unsupportive professors, etc. The author then argues that starting at the university level, engineering needs to be more collaborative and less about proving who's the best.

I have two thoughts. First off, I agree with the author that collaboration is missing in curriculum. In my classes, professors would attempt to simulate workplace environments by assigning group projects... and they were awful, and entirely unhelpful. You know how it is. Four people you don't know tackle a project that's new to all of us, one smart kid takes over, one slacker kid doesn't do shit, you all get the same grade, everyone gets that awful taste in their mouth to learn what it means to "share". It doesn't resemble the workplace at all, where team members are required to pull their weight and are brought into a project based on their experience and what they can learn from it.

Workplace collaboration is an important skill, but it's much more about what you can teach others, not who you can give credit to. I've seriously considered having my team do presentations to one another just to practice this, because these skills are so underdeveloped in new engineers. It doesn't matter what you can memorize, it matters how you can communicate today's project to the CEO who wants a five second explanation for him, then a 20 minute presentation to his team, then a one-hour training class for interested department members.

So yes, there's an opportunity for improvement there.

On the other hand, I hated reading that women are being driven out of STEM because it's "too mean". I have to say that the environment in my first engineering classes was something I needed: it made me tough. It was challenging, but when I got through it I felt confident and proud of myself. I just had to get past that initial conflict about whether I was really smart enough, or "engineer" enough, to make it... and sometimes I even still have hangups, but a few successes have given me comfort.

So really what's the problem? Is STEM too mean for women, or are women being told that we shouldn't competitive in a "mean" field?

We're told to be careful, told to play nice, my high school even got rid of our annual girls football game when I was there because it "got too competitive". Who knows what subtle messages we're confronted with again and again as we grow up... I know it's happening. It's good old "Feminine Mystique" material: we're surrounded by legends of men finding their way in the world, they're supposed to be challenged and come out bruised but stronger on the other side. But women's choices are limited, so we're not worrying our pretty heads too much. We'll just get so stressed trying to "have it all", we're told. Why can't those mean feminists just let women relax?

There seems to be a complicated pile of issues that maintain the unbalanced gender ratios. Image issues about what an engineer "is", issues that other competitive fields like law and business don't have. Culture issues about what a woman "should be"... unchallenged, noncombative, careful. And between all these is the conflict I've always had, that the sociology of feminism hasn't found its place among the people in hard sciences, building walls that keep out the really good questions we should be asking ourselves.

Comments

( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
ms_geekette
Jun. 1st, 2013 01:51 pm (UTC)
Well, I think it starts with the professors. What is gender breakdown? I remember a female civil engineering professor at my university that did not get tenure because she wasn't pulling in enough research money, but got consistently high marks from students on her teacher evaluations. She was one of two female civil engineering professors at the time, IIRC.

Personally, I think many schools are FILLED with STEM professors who don't really want to teach; they want to do research and only half-heartedly teach classes because they are forced to. They don't have specific training in teaching (I don't think teaching a few labs or a class or two as a PhD candidate/post-doc really counts), and a lot of times they suck at relating information to others. I've found that the further away someone is removed from the subject level, the harder it is to relate it to someone who is at a learning level far below their own.

Teaching others is a talent, and takes work to do it successfully. Unfortunately, a lot of STEM professors just aren't very talented in that arena and/or don't care. I think a lot of schools don't care if their STEM teachers aren't good. As long as they are bringing in research money, they are happy.
spacefem
Jun. 1st, 2013 02:00 pm (UTC)
I agree that's a problem, but that seems like it would drive everyone away from STEM fields, not just women. Which is sort of happening, especially in America. But I don't see why crappy teachers would be worse for women than men.
ms_geekette
Jun. 1st, 2013 02:21 pm (UTC)
Well, I guess what I'm saying is that a lot of the professors that are left standing might also be those that aren't supportive of women in STEM fields. I've had a difficult time determining if a (male) professor graded me lower because I actually did poor work, or if they had something against me. I had one or two experiences that I feel that was the case.

My mom is a staff assistant for a STEM department at a university - pretty much 100% of them have challenging personalities (and drive her nuts). I don't think they are purposefully against women in their field (there's only one female professor there right now), but they certainly aren't overly welcoming, either. I don't think they discriminate by gender, in that regard. ;-)

I do think you have to have a thick skin in order to major in a STEM field. I also think you have to have an even thicker skin to WORK in a STEM field. It is still very much a "boys' club." Whether or not men have thicker skins than women, I dunno. I do think it goes back to social conditioning, like you mentioned in your post.

I just think it's telling that being a "good" researcher will get you further at a university than being a "good" teacher.
jackiechloe
Jun. 1st, 2013 01:58 pm (UTC)
I also wonder whether they surveyed male students who dropped out of STEM programs. I bet they, too, described it as too mean. :)
neuro42
Jun. 1st, 2013 10:10 pm (UTC)
This. Also, anybody who thinks anything meaningful can be said about chemistry, IT, civil engineering, and pure math in the same sentence (the same acronym, even) has already lost. Also Also, while if there is a disproportionate burden on females that's worth thinking about, categorically anybody who can be talked out of one of these programs should be. If you need a "supportive environment" you are not well suited to actually getting shit done. Maybe, as SpaceFem seems to suggest, instead of telling women the environment isn't "supportive" we should be telling them they can, should, and must kick ass and take names regardless. Also Also Also, http://pipeline.corante.com/archives/2013/05/21/promoting_stem_education_foolishly.php
astrogeek01
Jun. 3rd, 2013 07:04 pm (UTC)
"If you need a "supportive environment" you are not well suited to actually getting shit done.

I think that's bullshit. Everyone should have a supportive environment. People shouldn't be cutting others down to claw their way to the top, they should be working together to get shit done. Unfortunately, in higher ed, the infighting can be pretty horrible and it affects the students. And you have to get through higher ed to get the jobs.

This does cause men to leave the STEM fields. It just causes women to leave more than it causes men to leave. I suggest reading (spacefem) if you haven't already, Talking about Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences by Elaine Seymour. It's a little old now, but the themes are still very relevant, and she discusses both women and men. There is still active research into this (I just did a followup survey about my graduate experience that the American Physics Society ran).

In terms of changing the climate into something good for people, many institutions actively fight against change. We're still stuck in monastery days. It's bullshit, and it makes me frustrated to know my department (undergrad only, focused on teaching) which has a great culture and is very supportive is sending our students off into this culture in grad school which is extraordinarily toxic.

It IS too mean. It's too mean for people. That just culturally affects women more than men for a whole host of reasons.

Edited at 2013-06-03 07:05 pm (UTC)
mrs_dragon
Jun. 1st, 2013 04:08 pm (UTC)
You know what really annoyed me about that article? The guy who wrote it cribbed his content from his daughter's thesis. So instead of saying, "hey this is a topic which is really interesting, on which my daughter has done a ton of research, let's have her write an article!" he instead took center stage and spoke in her place.

UGH.

Anyway, back to your point, I agree that it's more about the cultural conditioning women have going in than it is about the environment being more "mean" to women. A large part of what got me through college was a perverse desire to prove everyone wrong. Without that motivation I would never have stuck with it. (And even with it, I was a hairsbreath from switching to communication, which was the only other major I found as interesting). And by "everyone" I mean my mother, my high school teachers, my class mates, my high school friends...The best thing I ever did for my self esteem was make friends in college who met me as an engineering major and therefore took for granted that I could be an engineer.
aryanhwy
Jun. 1st, 2013 05:27 pm (UTC)
are STEM fields too mean for women?

It's a short piece based on a thesis project on why there aren't more women in engineering. Women who'd once pursued STEM fields but later dropped out were interviewed about what drove them away, and most of them said they just didn't like the competitive culture, the weed-out classes, unsupportive professors, etc. The author then argues that starting at the university level, engineering needs to be more collaborative and less about proving who's the best


How bizarre. Take out STEM and replace it with "philosophy", and the same discussion is happening over at NewAPPS (specifically here, here, and here).
(Deleted comment)
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )

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