Why Women In STEM Matter: A Confession

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the gender imbalance in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. I don’t know how or why it keeps popping up in my brain, as if I forgot to close the garage door 3 months ago – it’s never really bothered me before. I’m a female computer programmer, and have been working in my predominantly male field professionally for over 9 years. According to a recent report on NPR, only about 20% of computer programmers are women. Women make up, oh, about half of humans. So why did this huge discrepancy never really stick out to me before?

When I was growing up, I was always drawn to the creative, and the technical. I’d always have tons of other girls to hang out with in the former, and barely any in the latter. I was the only girl in my model rocket building club in 2nd grade\u2026 and one of three in my AP Physics class 10 years later. When I enrolled to study Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon (with a minor in Art), I learned it was a record year of recruiting women for them: a whopping 38% of the incoming class were female, proportional to a rise in qualified female applicants. Some upperclassmen friends of mine joked that in their year, they had more guys named Dave than women. They said it with a smile, but it was a true fact.

I, of course, felt special that I was one of the unique and different women who was drawn to the sciences. Of course, it was a large array of factors that made me that way: I was a hard worker (and a little bit stubborn), and had a ton of encouragement from my family. I also had what was probably the most important ingredient for me: a clear vision of the type of future I wanted to create by studying computer science (oddly enough, from a popular novel by Douglas Coupland. Hey, whatever works!).

It also helped that I wasn’t completely alone – there were those other girls who I’d keep seeing in the advanced math and science courses and activities with me. When one of these precious few allies would drop a class or the track altogether, the reason they’d always cite was that “it just wasn’t for them”, often couched in a charmingly self-effacing story about how their brains were little, or how they just didn’t “get it” like some other people “got it”. I’d take it in stride: it was their decision, and everyone has to look at their own strengths and weaknesses pragmatically. Right?

It just seemed natural, or at least normal, that I had barely any female contemporaries (both in school and professionally), until one day I started to think about the “why” of it all – where was the cause and the effect of this “norm”? “Normal” and “natural” are two different things, really. It seems unlikely that *all* the girls who dropped out of the difficult science and math classes just “didn’t have the head for it” (this was another cute explanation offered, often by girls with over a 4.0 GPA). Where was their data coming from to create this assessment? And why was I so accepting of these “I’m just a silly girl” responses from these clearly super-smart women? Were they – actually, were we all internalizing some bad juju?

There’s a ton of data to support the sad norm: despite outperforming their male classmates for the first 9 years of grade school, women have a sudden drop off rate in performance in math and science starting in 10th grade. There has been a lot written by serious researchers on why this happens, and the reasons are varied and subtle enough that I’d like to save that topic for another post. What I’m amazed at – what I’m confessing – is that it took me this long to see that there was something so clearly weird about this, and decidedly unnatural.

In this 2011 Gizmodo blog post, Why Women In Computer Science Matter, a commenter responds to the topic with “So, women in computer science matter because they will increase the number of women in computer science?”, implying that there is no “real problem” here. Another commenter chimed in to support – “Different genders have different tendencies. Some of them are created by society. Some of them are natural. Either way, they aren’t a bad thing, as long as they aren’t forced upon people.” It feels lousy to say it, but I would have agreed with this comment until recently.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the gender imbalance in STEM – and how STEM is represented in the two fastest growing fields in America, and how women need to be a part of that as much as men do. I’ve been thinking about how people who work in STEM (both female and male) saying “It’s hard, not everyone can do it,” from a place of pride, sounds a whole lot like the sad, defeatist explanations my AP Calculus female friend gave when she dropped the class. And how a tendency created by society may actually sometimes be a bad thing, even if it’s not “forced” on a person.

Those of us who do work in STEM owe it to ourselves and our future to at least see this imbalance, and try to use data (not accepted norms) to drive our decisions (and hopefully, changes). After all, that’s what science is all about.

Like the man says, be the change you want to see in the world. Be a role model, and be encouraging, and be aware. Young girls need to see both men and women kicking butt in the careers of the future. They need that vision that I was lucky enough to pluck out of a book.

What do you think?

 

Ashley Holtgraver is a senior web developer in Boston, Massachusetts.