Reshma Saujani, lawyer and politician, has a phenomenal TED Talk called “Teach girls perfection, not bravery.” In 12 minutes and 39 seconds, she expounds on what I’ve been struggling with my whole life: the stifling focus on perfection that has socialized girls into becoming hesitant at every turn. Girls, according to Saujani and seconded by me, “are taught to avoid risk and failure…to smile pretty, play it safe, get all A’s.” For 18 years, that’s what I did, but people are still telling me I did it wrong. Why is that? Saujani dedicated the last seven minutes of her speech to a hot-button phrase of the last couple of years: “women in STEM.” She’s in her right to do so, seeing as how she is the founder of the novel company Girls Who Code, and I also concede the fact that yes, we do need more women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The field has a distinct lack of estrogen, but I see this assertion as yet another pillar of society cramming this idea into our heads, and carrying out a well-meaning socialization that’s akin to brainwashing. The recent push for more female physicists and biochemical engineers has deepened a stigma of women in arts and humanities,”essentially promoting one by disparaging the other. This ignominy is not just found in the patronizing nods of family members in response to “history major.” It can also be seen publicly in Wells Fargo’s recent attempt at a tongue-in-cheek ad series revolving around the message “An artist today, A scientist tomorrow.” It drew enough Internet ire that it was promptly withdrawn, but not before shining light on the science versus humanities battle.
The gender disparity is not at all limited to STEM fields, unfortunately. It’s seen in a variety of careers: television and film directing, gourmet cuisine, philosophy, history, musical conducting, politics and many others. In fact, the gender disparity in non-STEM fields is even more dismal than that within STEM fields. In June, the Fortune 500 included only 21 companies led by women, a decrease from the 24 companies led by women in 2015 and 2014, whereas in STEM, according to PBS, women have gained enough traction to equal men in the biological, medical and chemical science labor forces; the only real disparity is in computer and environmental sciences. As reported by Catalyst, a non-profit organization whose mission is to increase female presence in the workplace, 50.1 percent of biological scientists, 52.8 percent of medical scientists, and 44.2 percent of chemical and materials scientists in the United States were women in 2013. They accounted, however, for only 25.6 percent of computer and mathematical occupations and 25.7 percent of environmental scientists and geoscientists. And if there are so many male-dominated careers, then why isn’t there the same push for female gourmet chefs or philosophers? One would argue that it’s because of the job security and opportunity STEM offers. Financial superiority should not trump bona fide passion, especially when the term financial superiority is essentially ‘I am better than you’ wrapped up and neatly tied with string. This mindset is increasingly prevalent in society, and it is doing considerable damage to young girls passionate about fields other than science.
Consider a young girl whose passion lies in the performing arts. She loves Shakespeare, almost to a fault, and when it comes time to apply to colleges, she applies as an English major. Is she any less of a feminist for pursuing her passion for the arts? Not at all. But the recent attitude toward humanities and social sciences certainly makes it seems so. Not only that, but what if this young girl takes her B.A. in English and becomes a leading scholar on Shakespearean text? Her insights could be the Shakespearean world’s equivalent of the cure to cancer, insights that never would have existed had she chosen to half-heartedly declare her major as Theoretical Physics as a sophomore all those years ago. It’s time to change the conversation of gender disparity to include the arts and humanities. There is no doubt that there still exists in this world a shameful gender bias, but society should not try to combat the bias in one field by disparaging those who enjoy the other.
Photo courtesy of Texas A&M