Feminism and Women in STEM

In the past 2 months of quarantine, I finished reading “The Second Sex” by Simone de Beauvoir. The book is very long and dense, almost 900 pages, and it is crowned as the “Bible” of feminism. I was interested in reading it out of scholarly curiosity, and I was very pleased to find out that de Beauvoir was also very logical and fact-based, as compared to some of the more radical feminism we see today. Since the book was written in 1949, there are obvious parts of the book that does not apply to our society today, such as the lives of bourgeois, and the dynamics between men and wife being master and slave.

It is quite impressive that while the role of women had remained inferior to men for thousands of years of human civilization, only in the past 70-ish years, things have changed dramatically. Women today are encouraged to have their own careers and are no longer chained to the stove. Although in the 21st century I still managed to find one ex-boyfriend who wanted me to drop my career and stay home, vast majority of the men I encounter treat me as an equal and are glad that I have my own passion and ambition. While more women are in the workforce than ever, it is interesting to note that they disproportionately have careers in the arts and humanities, and very few decided to become scientists. In this article I’d like to provide a few explanation for the lack of women scientists, and suggest ways to improve the situation.

Since childhood, little girls are made conscious of how they are different from little boys. Boys are encouraged to explore, their clothes are expected to get dirty – they climb trees, fight with each other, and are just mischievous in general. However, girls are supposed to be protected from danger, their clothes – dresses and skirts are also in the way to restrict their movements. They are told to be nice, stay tidy and out of trouble. They are given dolls to play with or pencils to draw with, while the boys are out their exploring their limits and how the world works. I’m describing it in a general sense, because I myself was a tomboy growing up. I climbed trees and got into fights, and I resented the idea of wearing a dress and look feminine. I think this might have played a very important role in my career choices later on.

Later as little children grew up a bit and enter school, the boys and girls are again treated with subtle (or not subtle?) differences. Based on my own experience, during middle school in China, I was sometimes told things like “your math score is pretty good for a girl”. I am sure the teacher meant to be nice, but it undoubtedly made me feel that boys were in a completely different league, and that I shouldn’t strive to achieve better scores because it was not my territory. I felt abandoned and thus diverted more of my time to literature and English and other humanities subjects, because those were the subjects that girls were supposed to be better at, and I did very well in them. Had I not move to the States, I probably would have became a writer, an interpreter or a lawyer.

I immigrated to the US to continue my high school studies, and my math was really advanced compared to my peers (thanks to the Chinese education), which gave me confidence that maybe I could have a career in math and science. I studied physics in college, and this was driven by an incessantly curiosity of how the universe works. My mother, her friends and family were not on board unfortunately. they say things like “why study physics as a girl? it would be much easier to study accounting and nursing, and the job prospects are better.” Being the rebel that I was, I did not listen to them and continued to pursue a PhD.

When I visited a lab as a prospective student a few years ago, a graduate student pulled me aside and asked me with such curiosity: “you seem pretty enough, why are you studying such a difficult subject and even getting a PhD?” I was dumbfounded – what does my face have anything to do with my career path? I’ve heard similar stories where a professor made a comment about a girl being too pretty for physics. I am not sure if the professor got into trouble for saying that, but these cases are definitely not rare. The most high profile comment of this sort was when a Nobel Laureate, Tim Hunt, openly discuss his trouble with working with women scientists: “Three things happen when they are in the lab: You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them they cry.”

Women tend to leave STEM, even when they love the intellectual stimulation, due to these sexist comments, and in more extreme cases, sexual harassment. One that popped right in my head was an astronomer at UC Berkeley. He had assaulted multiple women during the course of his career. When the women filed complaints, the department hid them because the guy was one of the best in the world and Berkeley did not want to lose him. His career stayed safe while women were being scared away from staying in academia. Similar stories happens all the time. I have to confess that I’ve had professors tried to make advances at me, but since they were not my direct supervisor I could be firm with my rejection and distance myself from them. But things could turn out completely differently if my own advisor were to make advance. The relationship between PhD advisor and advisee can be subtly dangerous, they control if and when you graduate, and their recommendation plays a very important role for landing the first job upon graduation.

My advisor is thankfully supportive for women in STEM. During group meeting a few weeks ago, he said he was joining initiatives at Columbia to improve the situation of minorities in STEM, and he genuinely asked us for advice. I looked at the Zoom screen and saw my face alongside 10 guys and thought it was a bit funny for some reason. In fact, I was usually the only women in almost all of the labs I’ve worked at. Looking back into history, when in the 1930s, physicist Maria Goeppert Mayer worked at Columbia on the Manhattan project as an unpaid volunteer (she later went on to win a Nobel Prize), the position I have now is a 1000x improvement. Looking into the future, however, we know that more women are capable of being good scientists, and it is up to us to encourage them to dream big when they are young, and provide a safe environment for them to do their science should they choose STEM as their career path.


2 thoughts on “Feminism and Women in STEM”

  1. Here are some fun facts:

    Fun fact 1: In lab department of my company, there are more females than males. Therefore, I become the minority in my department. 😅
    Fun fact 2: My previous summer research adviser, who is a Chinese female, graduated as a PhD in physics from Princeton.
    Fun fact 3: My mom wanted my sister to study accounting or child development in college. I told her take computer science. Finally, I win.

    To answer the question of “you seem pretty enough, why are you studying such a difficult subject and even getting a PhD?”:

    Emma has a characteristic state of superposition: α*|smart> + β*|pretty>. (Sorry I don’t know you very well, so I can’t calculate those coefficients for you. 🤣 )


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