Why We Need To Be Careful About Emphasizing Women's Progress in STEM

I saw it in middle school, and later in high school: If the girls in my class didn’t excel in science, no body was surprised, since girls are never expected to excel in the subject. But if they received a low grade on a paper in English or History, they faced far harsher backlash than did any male student who had also done poorly.

This double standard — that girls will excel in the humanities, and boys in the sciences — has roots in an antiquated past and has ramifications for the future. In my experience in the United States, values in schools and in families still largely align with the Colonial or Victorian idea — adopted from European court and estate cultures – that girls should “cultivate” themselves by learning an art. Painting and music were popular, as most literature was considered too heavy for young ladies to understand. The development of their talent was in turn invoked as a selling point when it came time to find a suitable marriage for these young women.

Now, while Western parents are usually proud of their daughters for achievements in any subject, the arts and humanities are still considered feminine pursuits. This is clear not only from the disproportionate praise and expectations placed on girls in these subjects, but also from the way boys are often teased for writing poetry or seen as effeminate if they love the theater or literature.

None of this is news, but a new trend in the way we regard women in STEM has emerged: We seem to think that celebrating women in STEM means ignoring women's achievement in "feminine" areas. We devote publicity to female leaders of tech companies, celebrate female engineers, push for female scientist LEGO minifigures, and monitor girls’ performance in STEM subjects in school more than ever before. But we simultaneously downplay the incredible work women continue to do in "feminine" realms. For example, few critics discussed Claudia Rankine’s position as a black woman, not only a black American, when she wrote her recent groundbreaking collection of essays on the black American experience and the American police state. Her writing is moving and important, but it’s writing, which much of society seems to think is the easiest outlet for women.

This is not to say that girls should abandon their efforts and interests in the maths and sciences. Indeed, the small number of female leaders in science is deplorable and needs to increase – along with their wages as compared to their male counterparts. But focusing on this can't allow us to ignore that this gap also continues to exist in the arts. In the film industry,  19% of feature films are written by women. Far too many brilliant and brave women in the male-dominated cultural sphere remain largely unknown to girls they could inspire: women like choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, writers Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton, and artist Zanele Muholi, more recently; or historically, educator Anna J. Cooper, writer Hiratsuka Raicho, and dance pioneer Isadora Duncan. These women are and were, at heart, activists.

In short, the focus on girls’ and women’s progress in STEM, though important, can't obscure women's achievements elsewhere. My concern is for young high school girls pushed and pulled to do well in a subject they don’t enjoy because the prevailing and trending messages from the media indicate they should. I found myself in that position, until I allowed myself to admit I just really didn’t like Chemistry. Ideally, everyone should be able to follow their passions, and unprecedented discoveries and creations should be valued equally between women in all fields as well as between women and men. I would like to see a world where girls can walk into a classroom or a conference room with no expectations placed on them from their peers, and even no limiting expectations from their ideas of themselves.

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Saskia G
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