Eliminating the Complicity of the Masses: What Gender Gap?

When I started writing this essay for a competition about closing the gender gap in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), I believed I had hardly ever experienced discrimination in my life due to being a woman, much less in STEM. My parents never told me that there were things I could not achieve because of my gender. I did not grow up with that ingrained limitation from my nuclear family. For example, my father would constantly tell me that his most important job was to raise me to grow up to be healthy, happy, and independent. He would also tell me to man up… you can attempt to interpret that one for me. However, after having multiple conversations with colleagues, friends, and perfect strangers about the so-called gender gap, I have realized that I have had experiences that are relatable to the problems we face due to sexism and gender discrimination. It was a challenging thought exercise, and I will share the process that helped me open my eyes.

I was automatically discarding experiences from the topic of women in STEM because I was dismissing those instances as plain incompetence and, many times, cultural intolerance. While the two previous explanations have proven true, it does not discard the fact that I betrayed my innate tendency to point at injustices and allowed willful ignorance to be excused. Just how I have learned that it is not my job to take responsibility for others’ emotional baggage, it is also not my job to justify willful ignorance. We all deserve to feel safe and be safe in our workplace. We need to remove our blinders, disprove convenient misconceptions that reduce paperwork for the administrators, and stop being complacent with mediocrity. In other words, if it smells rotten and it looks rotten – it is rotten.

Let’s play a game of “Have you <fill in the blank>,” where I ask you ten questions, and you respond honestly to yourself “yes” or “no”:

  1. Have you seen a woman get passed over for a task that she is well suited for and the task was given to a less prepared man?
  2. Have you ever been told that your work attire is not appropriate when men are allowed to wear whatever they want?
  3. Have you witnessed the lack of necessary accommodations based on the needs of all genders?
  4. Have you ever been asked if you are planning to get pregnant anytime soon, with the implication that it is a distraction?
  5. Have you witnessed someone being harassed or stalked? Has the supervisor’s reaction been to tell the victim, commonly a woman, that she needs to look at the facts, not the feelings?
  6. Have you been told “Mamita, tranquila. Estás histérica,” (“Relax sweetie, you’re being hysterical”) when you stood up for yourself to a man?
  7. Have you witnessed a man getting congratulated when a woman achieves something, supposedly for shepherding her?
  8. Have you experienced the level of entitlement where someone who has never walked in your shoes tells you what you are and what you know? Any mansplaining? Or something that happened to you, not them, is “water-under-the-bridge”?
  9. Have you ever had a work conflict dismissed because you “just do not get” how things work instead of being humanely guided through the process?
  10. Have you encountered any level of retaliation after going through the proper channels to raise a concern?

Did you say “yes” to any of the questions above? These microaggressions, in my opinion, provide obstacles to the progress of early-career scientists and are a symptom of the gender gap apparent in STEM participation statistics. I invite you to come up with your own questions to continue the thought exercise based on your own experiences or what you have heard has happened to others. Of course, our views might differ. My conclusion from this exercise was that the gender gap is real, and we have a problem! No wonder the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements are so popular. I am also concerned with the fact that trends fade away and the context is forgotten. We cannot forget the historical context of women’s rights, as words alone are meaningless without context.

When I was writing this essay, I was also reading a biography about my favorite Puerto Rican poet, Julia de Burgos (Pérez Rosario, 2014), and I was struck by the similarities between her story and the issues related to women in their respective careers. The author mentioned that because Julia de Burgos was a woman, she was not allowed to be a part of a group of influential poets in the 1930s called the “treintistas.” Are we stuck in the 1930s? While civil rights laws have been enacted to help reduce and penalize overt forms of discrimination, passive-aggressive and other subversive discrimination methods persist. At the end of my process, I realized that we are all responsible for preventing these aggressions in our daily lives and that ignoring them makes us complicit. We might fail at times, but those who are righteous acknowledge their errors towards those they have negatively impacted. Acting as though nothing happened is not an option. Thousands of people screaming at once are much louder than just one person screaming. If you have experienced anything similar to what I have described or have witnessed any of the above, I invite you to continue reading this essay. From now on, I will shy away from anecdotes and move towards proposing solutions, which still need further detail as the hindrances to change are many.

 “An error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.”

-Orlando A. Battista

The Gender Gap in STEM

Less than 30% of researchers in the world (UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2017) and only 16.9% of legislators in the U.S.A. (Lawless & Fox, 2012) are women. The gender gap in STEM is more accurately a societal problem that bleeds into STEM. Women are filtered out of STEM for reasons as innocuous as a teacher telling a girl in school that she is bad at math, to the long history of gender oppression, including femicide, rape, and domestic violence. While we do not know what happens behind closed doors, more worrisome is when we remain silent about what happens in plain sight. We need to eliminate the complicity of the masses that ignore issues of discrimination. We do not want to miss out on intellectual contributions just because of preconceived notions. Instead, we need to create an inclusive environment for all genders, ethnicities, and economic statuses (Tull et al., 2014). We also need to be careful to not undermine the struggles of those that have to overcome economic hardship and/or are discriminated against due to their place of origin. However, for the sake of continuity, I will not digress any further from the gender issues. Considering the long history of women that have paved the way for us, including the suffragettes who, after a 72-year effort, won us the right to vote in 1920 (History.com Editors, 2010), and how quickly we seem to be regressing (Siegel, 2018; Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, 2000-02). I am glad that we have a platform to continue having the conversation about gender inequality. Here I propose three ways to close the gender gap: creating awareness, restructuring the system, and implementing a stop-doing list.

Creating Awareness

While many STEM careers are in a commercial setting (Powell, 2012), we all pass through academia to obtain our advanced degrees. Academic institutions are responsible for “leveling the playing field” (McNutt, 2013) for students from different genders by providing adequate mentorship free of discrimination (U.S. Department of Education, 2015). With awareness initiatives like the Association for Women in Science (AWIS), we can foster an environment where women mentor each other instead of engaging in negative competition.

Many women joined the workforce during WWII (McEuen, 2016), but it was not until after the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s that women started to get similar pay to men and rise in the ranks (Noguchi, 2013). As the number of women joining the workforce increases, the need to restructure the professional environment to become equitable has become more evident. We need to take into account biological differences and adapt workplaces to them, such as providing accessible and affordable childcare (Committee for Gender Balance and Diversity in Research, 2016). As previously gendered roles at home become more evenly distributed between men and women (Marks, Bun, & Mchale, 2009), the same should reflect at work. The lack of retention of women in the workplace, as evidenced by the fall in the percentage of women in the workplace from 30% for ages 25 to 35 to 20% for ages 45 to 60, is a possible factor in explaining the small number of women in senior positions (Hewlett et al., 2008). The conversation about the gender gap helps us attain clarity and continuously seek ways to improve.

Restructuring the System

We need to have short-term and long-term strategies for competent educators to create curriculums that change social conventions. I am not going to focus on imposing percentage goals for recruitment because by doing so we neglect the individual’s experience in the program, including their professional growth and retention/completion. Restructuring starts from the moment we recruit students that might continue a career as researchers, engineers, professors, entrepreneurs, or anything else. We need to make trainees aware early on about idiosyncrasies in the system and eliminate the disconnect between academic development and the reality of the professional environment. We also need to develop and implement a transparent metrics system that follows trainees’ progress instead of focusing on making institutions match statistical criteria (Shibley, 2014). A non-biased third party should service anonymous and objective questionnaires to trainees, analyze the data promptly, and deliver statistics and specific deliverables to the institutions.

Stop-Doing List

We need swift, permanent, and tangible changes that cannot roll back based on the political climate. With a stop-doing list, we should be able to observe changes in the short term while we continue to work on awareness and restructuring the system. During graduate school, I came across the concept of stop-doing lists (Cowley, 2010), where you figure out the things that hinder your progress, like stop having daily 1-hour coffee breaks. To bridge the gender gap in STEM we need to stop having preconceived notions, we need to stop blaming the victim, and we need to stop being silent.

An Attempt at Closing Remarks

In this essay, I have highlighted measures I believe can be helpful in tackling the gender gap in STEM. Tying statistics to anecdotal data about being a woman in a STEM field sheds light on issues of gender discrimination hidden under the veil of “that is how things work.” It is noteworthy that anyone can suffer abuse and discrimination; gender is not a full-on shield. For staying vigilant, awareness is needed to protect vulnerable populations.

Credit Where Credit Is Due

Thank you to Tom V. Lee for all of the insightful conversations that helped shape the restructuring section of this essay and to everyone else that endured my conversations about the subject at hand. Whether we agree or disagree, that is a different story.

I reserve the right to learn, unlearn, grow, and change my mind.

Note: This article was published before on LinkedIn.

A version of this essay won (joint first place) the 2017 Excellence in Communication Award provided by the Association for Women in Science Gulf Coast-Houston Chapter addressing the issue: “Closing the STEM Gender Gap: Why Is It Important and What Can You Do to Help?


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