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The STEM Epidemic—pressure on women and minorities

And why is the focus exclusively on STEM?

“electronic circuit boards near tester” by Nicolas Thomas on Unsplash

If you are a woman (or man), an LGBTQ person or someone from a minority, I am truly sorry for the pressure being put on you by our politically charged neo-society on top of what we have already gone through. It can be real frustrating at times to be reduced to nothing more than a statistic instead of being evaluated holistically as an individual.

Before I write any further, I want you to know this:
Whether you are male, female, non-binary, cis, trans, white, privileged, underprivileged, or from a minority — accept yourself and do what works for you personally, what you enjoy and be proud of it. If you want to be a stay at home dad (or mom) and find joy in it, do it. If baking is what you love, do that! If you want to be a lawyer, doctor or an engineer, don’t let stereotypes hold you back, or lack thereof, push you into that direction. Don’t react to the pressure being put on you by the society to pursue STEM, especially if you’re not all that into it. Because, that — jumping on the bandwagon could really be the crushing of your soul and almost succumbing to slavery perpetuated by the few whose opinions tend to have been accepted as the norm.

Credibility

I hate that I have to prove my credibility by substantiating it with my qualifications and work in the field — anyone who has taken undergrad Philosophy 101 would be quick to point this fallacy out (“appeal to accomplishment/authority”), but that is where we are today. The argument no longer matters. If you are straight, white, male (or female in some circles) — the majority; and don’t have a college degree, your opinion is effectively void. It is for that reason, I’m glad I’m not the majority and hold multiple “cards”. (Check). On top of that, I have previously been involved in STEAM (STEM + Arts) research and collaborated with visiting researchers from the University of Siegen, Germany under the supervision of an expert female professor. We went to local community schools in the Philadelphia area for our fieldwork to teach 12–14 year old girls coding and robotics using Arduinos; so as to encourage their participation in STEM in high school and college years. Our research was published at Ubicomp 2015 Conference, Osaka, Japan and the demo paper and the work I was involved in won the “best paper award”. I have also been the President of Math & Computer Science (MCS) Society at Drexel University which is a student organization that organizes intellectually stimulating tech talks by industry experts and tech employers, and has a substantial undergraduate following. My first Computer Science teacher was a female — she taught me how to code. Actually, all of my CS teachers throughout high school were brilliant females. It was only in college that the computing faculty was a skewed (male majority) mix. My published research involving metadata technologies was completed under the supervision of a female industry expert, Dr. Jung-ran Park. So, there are my accomplishments, for the sake of the argument.

Diversity & ‘Exclusion’

Sometime ago, I received the following email from Snap Inc.

Details Partially Masked. An email sent by a Snap Inc. recruiter from their Diversity & Inclusion Program

Ouch! That one line in the signature…

At first, it was flattering to receive an email from one of the leading tech companies like Snap — and I know their intentions were good. But… just look at my accomplishments from an early age; the innovations, web projects, patent filings, published research, independent research, securing merit-based scholarships, making open source contributions, and professional work experience — and all of that being reduced to my personal, physical trait(s). Maybe I was reading too much into it and it could have been a purely talent-based selection, but it felt insulting.

I thanked the recruiter politely for keeping me in mind, but didn’t bother pursuing the opportunity.

In my informal discussions with some of my female engineer friends (then colleagues), their feelings were similar — “hire me for my talent and not just …because of the woman card or for my color or to meet quotas. But if you do anyway, I’ll prove my worth to you!

On the other hand, however, stands my one anonymous friend — let’s call her Tish. She is a conservative Christian who has her reservations with feminism and the “women-in-STEM” bandwagon we have all jumped on. Tish loves to bake. She’s amazing at it — I have tasted her homemade cookies. She wants to open a bakery, but is almost embarrassed to show this talent off among her circle of female peers, some of whom are STEM majors and look down upon her because of her “housewifely” lifestyle.

This is not feminism. As a supporter of human rights, I for one am not okay with this undue pressure being put on most women and minorities to pursue STEM! After all, my mother previously used to be a homemaker… Now she is a businesswoman. Does the latter make her a worthier person?
I have a sister who graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree with Summa Cum Laude but her heart always wanted to pursue fine arts and fashion, not sciences. Guess what? She ended up going back to a top NYC fashion school, so as not to crush her soul a second time. It’s not because she’s not good at STEM — it’s because she may not have been all that into it.

I think we can all agree, if there’s one thing the tenets of feminism teach us — it’s for women to be free; to be who they want to be, which means, if a young woman (or a man) has a passion for technology or baking — no one should tell them not to pursue it, but at the same time, pushing them in one direction or another is ridiculous. Are non-STEM professionals not good enough?

It’s as if, the pressure to break the stereotypes; to excel and break the male-dominated glass ceiling has surpassed our logical ability to be true to ourselves and pursue what makes us happy — because we don’t want to be the stereotype. I am not referring to you if you are genuinely interested in tech and find it fascinating, but pursuing STEM just because “it’s cool” or because of the monetary benefits, is another story. Believe me, you will walk away frustrated like a lot of my peers at Drexel — males and females alike who pursued Computer Science/Engineering despite not being fully into it and ended up switching majors the following year to something non-technical or semi-technical like Management Information Systems (MIS). Sexism had little to do with it, if at all — at least in an inclusive and diverse Philly, and a university with left-leaning, liberal, welcoming beliefs… and the only beliefs. Some of the guys and gals who were pursuing engineering as an “experiment” but never actually had any sincere interest, just couldn’t make it.

This is happening unfortunately with everyone — not just women. I just heard the story of a man who has apparently given their day job as a loan officer to switch to coding — yikes, what took you this long? I see money or career opportunities as the obvious motivator. Another one of my former male colleagues working in Marketing had a similar story.

Sorry for the bias here, but I am biased towards innate programmers and technologists who had a passion for it since a young age vs. those who want to get into it largely for secondary reasons — looking at it as an “alternative job”.

Yes, for survival in this cruel world, this in an excellent strategy. You can learn the craft and make a very good living out of it at a 9 to 6 job. But if you want to be an expert, an innovator, an inventor in any field — there has got to be innate interest combined with your ability to learn new skills, with access to the resources. It’s almost nature + nurture.

Now, regarding the STE(A)M research I was involved in…
We started with a group of ~10 or more middle school girls who signed up for our coding camp over the Summer quarter. They would stay after-hours in school to learn Arduino programming and robotics with us weekly. Their parents seemed appreciative of the work we were doing — and I felt proud making a difference in the community. Ours was a diverse group of researchers and the young girls were from very diverse backgrounds too — socioeconomically, racially, and religiously; it’s Philly after all. Granted, there were fluctuations in their attendance —not many kids wanted to stay in school after hours. Towards the end of the quarter, only ~2 out of the 10 girls persisted. They were truly brilliant — naturals at programming, and I have to say, perhaps better than the boys their age. They finished their final projects gracefully: sewing programmable, Arduino-powered LED-arrangements into wearables such as a party dress or a backpack. For their young age, I was amazed that the end result they arrived at was an actual working, beautiful finished product coded and sewed by them with minimal adult assistance. Honestly, I wouldn’t be able to execute the project flawlessly even today despite having years of programming experience.

But, unfortunately, the harsh reality we weren’t so thrilled about was: a majority of girls simply had dropped off despite our constant efforts of fostering a welcoming environment and offering them small incentives — just some little snacks and our attempts to integrate arts and plush toys into coding; to make participation in our camp more enjoyable. Based on my personal observations as the group’s ethnographic researcher, who took detailed field notes while carefully observing student learning behavior, some of the girls seemed bored or uninterested — not unintelligent, just uninterested in coding. Now, mind you, social sciences (specifically, anthropology and ethnography) can be very subjective — a lot of it based upon interpretation, surveys and observation and that is my problem with the field too. Another researcher could have interpreted this as a sign of unintelligence, of poor cognition of girls, the student being preoccupied with family issues or even seen this as our failure to be engaging teachers! None of these observations are necessarily true or false, objectively — it’s interpretation.

In my field notes (I still have copies), there were some questions injected strategically by us during the course of what would seem like casual conversations between a teacher and student — smalltalk would slowly lead to a question like “so, do you think you ever get treated differently than boys in school?” to which the girl responded, “no, I think we are all treated equally.” That was comforting to hear. Then again, it’s one diverse Philly.

Now, we don’t know what our success rates would have been with young boys as frankly, we never really opened our doors to them — regretfully so. I wish if there was one thing we could have done differently, it would have been to promote the tech club to young boys and girls alike and make it into a fostering environment for everyone. Chances are we may have ended up with just as few boys or too many boys by the end; but at least it would then have been a fair comparison and help us understand the differences in our teaching approach.

While working towards inclusion, we probably ended up excluding a few— the young boys who probably didn’t even fully understand discrimination, -isms and politics. While working towards diversity, we sort of worked against it.

I have to quote Amazon’s CEO, Mr. Jeff Bezos here:

“The thing I have noticed is when the anecdotes and the data disagree, the anecdotes are usually right. There’s something wrong with the way you are measuring it.”

Tons of academic research papers out there and data all over the Internet will tell you one set of facts (“data”) and subjective research which has apparently been flawlessly researched, peer-reviewed and repeatedly confirmed as solid evidence by PhDs-holders, but more often than not your personal observations (“anecdotes”) will not always align 1:1 with it. 
And, you will either be fooled by your emotions or likely bullied by the academic community into believing maybe it is your internal bias causing these thoughts or conditioning — I don’t mean to validate our internal biases here but really… what is going on here? We tried by a great stretch to do what we could to engage young girls in STEM but the results weren’t so favorable. Did we screw up?

Maybe, the more important question we should be asking, instead of “why are there so few women in STEM?” is perhaps, “why is it so important to have many women (or <insert group name>) in STEM?” or 
Why are we pressuring folks, virtually everyone, into STEM?”

There are valid reasons to promote diversity in any field — I need not cite them; the Internet and the media are disproportionally filled with them, but making it into an accepted Supreme Practice, the Law of the Land, and declaring it as the ultimate solution to a problem which may not even exist outside our heads and pushing people in one direction on this basis is nothing short of absurdity.

Not many ask this question when it comes to other male-dominated jobs, and I don’t just mean: Why are there not enough female…

  • Construction workers
  • Coal-miners
  • Delivery persons
  • Plumbers
  • Cable Technicians
  • Electricians
  • Sanitation workers
  • Law enforcement officers…
  • Other risky jobs with higher rates of “expendibility” — a concept explored by Dr. Warren Farrell, a feminist and a researcher of Boys & Fatherhood issues.

…but, I mean even the seemingly-glamorous jobs…. like chefs or fashion designers, are male dominated or at least the industry is “run by men”.
To be fair, over years, I have personally (“anecdotally”) observed the number of women grow in the above listed jobs too — from the team who picks up our town’s recycling and trash, to construction workers, to our USPS mail-woman, to the female food delivery drivers, but it’s still a relatively low percentage of women. The world seems to be indifferent to this fact, but when it comes to STEM or winning the nobel prizes, it better be at least a 50% representation largely to break the stereotypes — which ironically have already been disputed (therefore the term, “stereotypes”).

Female-dominated jobs

Interestingly, we are not so concerned about promoting diversity and achieving a 50% representation (“equality”) when it comes to female-dominated jobs — some of which may be counted as STEM (psychologists, veterinarians, nurses, accountants, tax preparers, etc.).

Maybe, “a 50% representation” is not an adequate indicator of equality after all.

Female-dominated jobs based on U.S. Department of Labor data

If virtually every profession is dominated by straight, white, male dudes or female dudettes in some cases — for whatever reasons — historic or not, I think it’d fair to say, the only way to “breakthrough” is to surpass your own innate potential and your degree of interest in the subject, despite the challenges standing in your way. Don’t you think?

Disclaimer: The point here isn’t to undermine anyone’s struggle but dwelling on them won’t get you anywhere — acknowledging them and moving on; rather running towards your goals, would. F*ck the world!

Personal Solution

Often a times, what you have is >> what you think you don’t have.

I think my solution is to approach the “problem”, which may not be a large-scale “problem”, from a different angle — social scientists will disagree with me, so let them.

Instead of looking at what you don’t have, or what certain groups lack, push yourself past it — immerse yourself in what you love, read about it, practice it, build things, get burned by it if you must, in order to succeed. And most importantly, instead of appeasing to others to find acceptance, ask yourself sincerely have you truly accepted yourself?

I have learned this the hard way and am still learning: seemingly an easy task, accepting yourself and not seeking validation from others — the “standard normal” population is very hard for a lot of folks.

Finally, I am not approving of Linus Torvalds’ alleged bad behavior (I don’t know the whole story), but I definitely resonated with what one of the Reddit users had to say here without mincing their words:

Societal Solution

Educate People Equally

Lowering the bar or creating “diversity” quotas isn’t optimal and would only lead to subpar talent acquisition, resulting in inferior products — yup, slippery slope fallacy but I would sincerely think there’s some sense to it. I would like to believe, one of the solutions would be to train everyone equally — disperse education on everyone regardless of their physical traits or socioeconomic status: this is truly realizing equal opportunity. This is also why I’m a big proponent of low-cost MOOC programs like Georgia Tech’s OMSCS of which I’m a pioneer, and online platforms like Udacity, Udemy, and edx.org. But… when it really comes down to it, let everyone go through the test of seven wonders and get burned if they must to prove their excellence. Subpar talent — men and women will simply be self-eliminated.

Despite the hardships they have faced, you will find successful people of every color, gender, orientation and nationality in virtually every field! These people are successful because of their dedication to push themselves past the barriers in their lives instead of dwelling on what may have set them back directly or indirectly.

Oh, on another note, you will also find plenty of privileged people — men and women, who have a lot: they were born into old money with access to a plethora of resources at their fingertips who ended up being dumb and haven’t succeeded at STEM or anything. To give you an example, I find it very interesting how some rich kids can get into Ivy League schools — it’s as if money has created some sort of genetic intelligence in the lineage, but anecdotes will tell you otherwise. Those offered an admission to a prestigious school based on anything but their merit will remain subpar.

Treat Professions Equally

I’m sick of our obsession with STEM.

STEM is cool — no doubt about it, and has profound effects on our society and culture, but you also have to be into it sincerely. The increased focus on STEM these days as if it is a Godly profession and the sheer lack of concern for other professions is no different than shaming individuals pursuing anything but STEM, which is unhealthy. We need individuals in every field who love what they do and are awesome at it!

STEM Horrors
On the bleak side, look at some of the horrors STEM has given birth to, the problems we have invented. Forget about weapons of mass destruction, or the Therac-25 medical disaster but even seemingly innocuous things like Facebook has changed (destroyed?) our social culture and the way we interact with the world. ‘Likes’ suddenly are the ultimate indicator of popularity or lack thereof. Your own self-esteem is determined by the people in your “social circle” half of which you may not even have met! I’m not making stuff up, numerous studies are demonstrating the link between Facebook usage and depression rates. We have given a platform like this so much power over us that we now think it could influence the elections; our democracy — whether there is truth to it is irrelevant — the point is just what have we done?

Then, come the dating and hookup apps. Even worse — the hormonal high they give you followed by a crash. Yikes.

The “news” you receive is largely an algorithmic guessing of your political views rather than an upfront unbiased picture of reality.

You want to engage in a brainstorming debate? Let’s go on Quora.
You don’t agree with an unpopular viewpoint? No problem! Let’s get the bastard censored based on the “Community Guidelines”.

On a city bus or on the subway, you will find most staring down at their smartphones with wires plugged into their ears — looks robotic. I mean, just imagine if an alien population was looking at this, how weird-funny-ugly would the scene look!

This is STEM too.

Moreover, since I am writing this piece with the very means of STEM, I feel like a total fraud and a hypocrite :-)

You are welcome in Tech!

Bottomline, if you are genuinely interested in tech and can’t do without it, or if you are merely curious and want to explore tech, I will truly support you as a friend, mentor and a professional — regardless of your physical traits, and you should not let anything stand in your way. And, you will eventually succeed despite the setbacks!

My ideal image of a STEM-lover is a nerdy lone-wolf — man, woman, anyone, who likes being left alone in their room or lab or space and likes fiddling with gadgets and technology, researching it, and exploiting the Internet to learn. Bonus! The social aspects simply don’t apply in such a situation — it’s you who’s responsible for your success. This is what I mean by not looking at others for validation or giving them an opportunity to hold you back.

If you are looking to get into STEM just to make some money (ahem, my freshmen college buddies), or jumping onto a politically charged bandwagon to hunt for “more [insert group name] in STEM” for PR or to check boxes and meet quotas, don’t expect my endorsement. It is perfectly okay to hate STEM or be indifferent to it much like it is to be so towards Law, Sports, or Religion.

Don’t expect my endorsement either if you’re going to discriminate against anyone in STEM or shut them off based on who they are — whether underrepresented females or seemingly privileged white cis-males! The discrimination should really be limited to distinguishing between exceptional talent and the rest of the population.

Above everything, we need talented people who genuinely enjoy what they do in their fields and have potential be successful; to become experts. The unhealthy push for everyone to pursue STEM for secondary reasons, to “breed more STEM researchers of every type” when not everyone may be all that into it or simply because it is trending and “looks good” — much like how diversity is being approached these days, needs to stop.

© 2018. Akshay Sharma. All Rights Reserved.