By Barbara Oakley, The Wall Street Journal, July 15, 2018
Why do relatively few women work in science, technology, engineering and mathematics? University of Washington lecturer Stuart Reges —in a provocative essay, “Why Women Don’t Code”—suggests that women’s verbal and analytical skills lead to career choices outside STEM. Mr. Reges’s critics say he is making women feel inferior by implying they aren’t interested in tech. I’m a female engineering professor with decades of experience as well as a background in the humanities and social sciences, so perhaps I can lend some perspective to the controversy.
I’ve observed that women tend to choose disciplines other than STEM, often for the reasons Mr. Reges mentions. Yet his argument is incomplete. An important but often neglected factor is the attitudes of undergraduate professors. Not STEM professors, but professors in the humanities and social sciences.
Professors have profound influence over students’ career choices. I’m sometimes flabbergasted at the level of bias and antagonism toward STEM from professors outside scientific fields. I’ve heard it all: STEM is only for those who enjoy “rote” work. Engineering is not creative. There’s only one right answer. You’ll live your life in a cubicle. It’s dehumanizing. You’ll never talk to anyone. And, of course, it’s sexist. All this from professors whose only substantive experience with STEM is a forced march through a single statistics course in college, if that.
My colleagues in the humanities unthinkingly malign STEM in front of me. Their bias has become so deeply ingrained that they don’t think twice. My students tell me it’s worse when I’m not around. With joking asides during class or more-pointed conversations about careers, the STEM disciplines are caricatured as a gulag for creative types. Even a few untoward remarks like this to students can have profound effects. It’s too bad, because science, technology, engineering and math can be among the most creative and satisfying disciplines.
Many studies, including a critical review by Elizabeth Spelke in American Psychologist, have shown that on average men and women have the same abilities in math and science. But as Mr. Reges notes, women tend to do better than men verbally—a consequence of early developmental advantages.
How does this alter career choice? A student named Bob might get a C in Physics 101 but a D in English composition. His English professor probably won’t try to recruit him into the field. Bob’s choice to become an engineer makes sense because he’s less likely to be good at the social sciences or humanities.
Women who are average in physics classes, on the other hand, are often better at other subjects. When Sara has a C in physics 101, she’s more likely to have a B or even an A in English composition. Her English professor is more likely to recruit her. And, crucially, the “STEM is only for uncreative nerds” characterization can play well here. It can provide a mental boost for Sara to hear a powerful figure like her professor denigrate the subject she’s struggling with.
Even when a professor isn’t working to recruit Sara to the social sciences or humanities, she might be recruiting herself. Grades mean something; if Sara’s working hard to get a C in calculus, but she earns an A in English with less effort, she’s going to experience a powerful pull toward the humanities.
Consider a student who gets an A in every subject. Let’s call her Nadine. She’s the type of student who could excel in whatever she chooses. Her engineering professors might be telling her that an electrical engineering degree is a great career choice that will open doors and pay well. But her non-STEM professors may be telling her something completely different: “You won’t use your fantastic writing skills. And besides, you’ll just sit in a cubicle crunching numbers.” Nadine can begin to feel she’s untrue to her full set of talents if she picks engineering. So Nadine jumps the STEM ship.
What about the women who go into STEM and discover bias in the workplace? Jerks exist in every workplace. Bullying is so prevalent in nursing, for example, that it’s the subject of dozens of studies. “Bullying behaviors fall on a continuum ranging from eye-rolling and exclusion to humiliation, withholding information, scapegoating, intimidation, and backstabbing,” a 2016 article in American Nurse Today notes. “The bully sets out to destroy the victim’s confidence and credibility as a way to gain power and control.”
If I drew a Venn diagram to see the intersection between a jerk and a sexist, it would show almost total overlap—in male-dominated disciplines, that is. It can be easy for a woman who has landed in a toxic software-development environment to say, “There’s horrible bias here!” And she’d be right. But there are toxic pockets in every discipline or field. STEM is no different.
I have experienced bias in my career, but I also would not be where I am today without the strong support of many wonderful men. Women are vitally important to STEM. Professors outside these disciplines should stop mischaracterizing to poach the best students, who are often women. And it’s time for everyone to step back, take a breath, and acknowledge that good and bad bosses and co-workers exist everywhere.
Ms. Oakley is an engineering professor at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., and author of “Learning How to Learn,” forthcoming in August.
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