STEM pressure shouldn’t decide women’s futures

Hillary Smith


Illustration by Emma Rust.

First, I want to say that science fascinates me. It and the other fields in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) are crucial to society’s development and maintenance.

A recent report by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) found that nearly all STEM fields are dominated by men, and women hold just 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees in physics, engineering and computer science. In the past several years, the push to encourage more women to enter these fields has grown. Obviously I completely support this effort; we need women’s contributions. That being said, I have actually felt pressure as a female to go into these fields. In high school, as I excelled in pre-calculus, my teacher told me seriously that I should go into STEM because that sphere needed females.

In fact, I hated math. I knew there was no way I could make it my life, but I felt a sense of selfishness and guilt. I was a woman being encouraged to go into STEM and I was turning it down. Should I have done it for the greater good of my gender? Ultimately, I stuck with my passion for the humanities.

An article on Thought Catalog by a woman whose gender studies major is often degraded points out that the humanities are perceived as more feminine, something I hadn’t considered but makes sense. The sciences revolve around firm facts –– seemingly more masculine. The humanities deal with emotions and ambiguity, relating to the conception of women as more emotional, softer. The sciences also work with advanced mathematical concepts, still considered men’s area of expertise. That same AAUW report discusses boys’ historical outperformance of girls on math tests and research showing boys surpassing girls on quantitative and spatial tasks, although the resulting biases ignore other factors, such as the fact that spatial skills can be developed.

While these perceptions are likely to subconsciously discourage females from STEM, they might also make them feel, as I did, like they should enter STEM to defy gender expectations. A female humanities major may then be seen as less impressive. While I haven’t noticed a significant female majority in my own humanities classes, I have noticed differing reactions when students announce their majors. When I say “English,” the reaction is, “OK, cool.” When my female peers in STEM declare theirs, the reaction is usually, “Nice, that’s awesome!”

Again, encouragement and positivity for women going into STEM is crucial. I do not wish the response for them to be any less enthusiastic. I do hope, however, that women do what they truly love to do and not what they feel obligated to do for their gender. Perhaps this is a point for people recruiting women for STEM to add. If women love physics, they should study it. But if they love discussing philosophy, they should do that, because the humanities play a vital role in society.

One young woman’s article on The Huffington Post reminds us that the critical thinking skills and cultural edification provided by humanities studies are incredibly important for dealing with global issues. We need humanities students to interact with people and to help solve systemic societal problems, like poverty and discrimination, that don’t have one right answer. If we recognize that both areas are important in their own ways and we use the mutual skills taught by each to work together in combating global issues, we will undoubtedly be successful. Furthermore, if each of us engages in the areas we are passionate about, these areas will be stronger for it. Yes, STEM needs more women, but we get to choose the roles we play.