Women in STEM fields: “Life is not easy for any of us”

This week, Ellen Pao’s sexual discrimination lawsuit against the famous venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers is reigniting the conversation over women’s place in the technological universe.  The debate is nothing new.  Pre-Pao, the scandal over Facebook’s penis-privileged board of directors was front-and-center.  According to the National Science Foundation, graduate school enrollment in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) classes is reaching gender equity, so what is happening once female grads enter the ‘real world?’

Part of the problem is undoubtedly the hero worship for male scientists – noted in Ms. Magazine’s Winter 2012 article “Women of the Valley”– and painfully obvious in the very NYT article covering Pao’s discrimination claim:

Men invented the Internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolized Mr. Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died. Nerds. Geeks. Give them their due. Without men, we would never know what our friends were doing five minutes ago.

Now, I’m fully sympathetic to the necessity of a catchy first paragraph, and David Streitfeld is an adept writer.  But this isn’t an episode of The Big Bang Theory where we all giggle at Sheldon’s social mishaps and take for granted that all our hilarious scientist buddies just happen to be men while the community-college dropout just happens to have a vagina.  This is real life, where women and girls are really suffering from stereotype threat.  And the claim that the technology we consume today has been visited upon our world through the hard work of these legions of “geeky” men is indeed a baseless stereotype.

Xeni Jardin at boingboing.net exquisitely responds to Streitfeld thusly:

You guys, ladies suck at technology and the New York Times is ON IT.

The ghosts of RADM Grace Hopper, Ada Lovelace, Radia “Mother of the Internet” Perlman, and every woman who worked in technology for the past 150 years frown upon you, sir. Women may have been invisible, but the work we did laid the groundwork for more visible advancements now credited to more famous men.

“Men are credited with inventing the internet.” There. Fixed it for you.

When the biggest problem is not attracting women to STEM fields, but rather keeping them there post-grad (from 2000-2005, in computer-related industries – the leading employers of science and tech grads, only 20 percent of employees were women), one has to wonder if the reason isn’t the way in which women’s contributions are systematically undervalued.

Streitfeld’s ‘whoops, I forgot the women’ moment isn’t really that surprising considering how female scientists have been treated in the past.

Rosalind Franklin, the woman who discovered the structure of D.N.A. (the double helix) and photographed it using X-ray diffraction methods, had her life’s work stolen by her male colleagues James Watson and Maurice Wilkins – men who were awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize for Franklin’s discovery.

Maria Goeppert-Mayer, a theoretical physicist who proposed the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus, spent most of her life researching independently for no pay and did not secure full-time paid work in her field until the age of fifty-three.


Henrietta Leavitt was hired by Edward Pickering, the head of the Harvard College Observatory, for around 25 cents an hour (along with many other women, who were simply cheaper labor than men) to study the photographic plates being catalogued to compare star position and brightness.  Leavitt’s job was to identify the variable stars, which change in brightness in a period that can range from hours to weeks, and she eventually noted a pattern that would later be labeled the Cepheid variable.

So, if I’m a scientifically-minded woman, it’s not that I don’t have any female role models, it’s that I see these women working their asses off only to fade away into the gender studies back annals of history while movies about upper-class, white, male Facebook founders win Oscars.  The gender pay gap in STEM jobs has been somewhat remedied since Leavitt’s time (in fact, although there still is a gap, women in STEM jobs earn 33% more than women in non-STEM jobs), but clearly, the bias against female scientists is still alive and well when it comes to attribution.

This, combined with a typical working woman’s challenge balancing work and family in a society that has yet to implement a domestic policy revolution (the paid maternity leave, etc. policy discussion is another blog post entirely) can easily explain the sharply declining numbers of women in STEM fields post-grad.

Marie Curie was once quoted as saying, “Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that?”  It’s true that these mistreated women remain passionate enough about their work to push through the hardships.  Yet, how much more they could do – how much more we could all benefit from their genius — should they be thriving?  That’s the question that should haunt even us non-scientifically-minded women.

*Thanks to the Stuff Your Mom Never Told You podcast and their episode, “Women in Science: They Exist!” for various and sundry research bits.

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4 responses to “Women in STEM fields: “Life is not easy for any of us”

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