Traditionally male dominated fields are now encouraging diversity by giving more opportunities to women. While the number of women in STEM have skyrocketed, consequences of affirmative action exist as well. A noticable issue is the stigma of incompetence surrounding women in these fields.
Why we need more diversity in STEM?
Without going into detail, we first need to justify why the lack of diversity is an issue worth fighting for.
A diverse work environment brings new perspectives, innovative solutions, and better performance. Researchers from Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing discuss examples:
some early voice-recognition systems were calibrated to typical male voices. As a result, women’s voices were literally unheard. … Similar cases are found in many other industries. For instance, a predominantly male group of engineers tailored the first generation of automotive airbags to adult male bodies, resulting in avoidable deaths for women and children
This issue doesn’t stop at women, racial minorities also have issues with undiverse solutions. In an article, researcher Joy Buolamwini believed that
facial recognition software has problems recognizing black faces because its algorithms are usually written by white engineers who dominate the technology sector. These engineers build on pre-existing code libraries, typically written by other white engineers.
A diverse workplace brings in unique perspectives, which is a necessary step to improving society overall.
Feedback loop of self-doubt
These days, everyone knows that diversity is beneficial. But even with government and companies actively working towards diversity, why is STEM still unbalanced? Truth is, affirmative action has unintended consequences which work against minorities in STEM. To explain this, let’s start from the beginning:
Possible historical reasons for gender imbalance in STEM
There are many possible explanations for the imbalanced gender ratios in STEM. There’s lack of role models, outdated stereotypes, and unfair biases. While it’s hard to pinpoint the exact reason, these ideas can influence everyone whether they’re aware of it or not.
Young women may have trouble imagining themselves in STEM because there aren’t many female role models. Stereotypical male scientists and engineers can also create a bias against women, because they don’t fit the “ideal” image. These reasons contribute to the traditional mindset that women are not as qualified as men, which society is trying to fight against today.
Goal of affirmative action
These days, organizations have turned to affirmative action. By giving more opportunities for industry minorities, traditional barriers can be broken and a diverse workforce can be accepted as the new norm. This is a good idea in theory, but plays out much differently in real life.
Organizations practice affirmative action
Companies and schools have many ways to practice affirmation action, including gender targeted outreach and keeping track of progress with minority members. Many also speculate that quotas (which are illegal in some countries) exist, and are applied behind closed doors.
As diversity increases, speculation about the competence of women in STEM rises as well. Here’s some comments I’ve heard that perfectly illustrates the stigma.
“You’re only doing so well because you’re friends with Andy and Bill.”
– Engineering classmate
I was so shocked someone could say this to my face. In the moment, I laughed it off. However, it got me wondering if my success was credited to my male friends.
“They need affirmative action because without it, there would be no women engineers.”
– Colleague (funny enough, his mom is an engineer)
“You only made the cutoff because they needed more girls in STEM.”
– Engineering classmate
Was everything handed to me because I’m a girl? Were my job offers and college acceptances given to meet some gender quota?
“My boss keeps asking me if these [foreign] names are girls. Ladies, put your English names on your resume, they want you!”
– Former intern at an unnamed company
Now I’m really convinced that there’s some gender quota. Was I happy that I was favored among other candidates? Not like this. Why did I work so hard when they just took any girl?
Though it’s not everyday, comments like these pop up once in awhile. As silly as these comments are, it creates quite a hostile environment.
The thing is, I understand where the anger comes from. Why should a less qualified woman be selected in place of a more qualified man? It’s absolutely unfair to qualified men and devalues qualified women.
Stigma leads to speculation and self-doubt
As much as affirmative action claims to help girls in STEM, it can actually works against competent women.
A woman finding success in STEM can come off as undeserving due to her extra opportunities. Her peers may wonder if her achievements are credited to her gender rather than her capabilities.
In many cases, women start doubting themselves as well. This stigma in combination with other social influences could possibly explain why impostor syndrome is so prevalent among women in engineering.
Coming back full circle
Successful women are often met with doubt by either their peers or themselves. This creates an uncomfortable work environment for everyone. Suspicion on the qualifications of women professionals can making it more challenging to feel accepted in the world of STEM. Ironically, this challenge is one of the very issues that affirmative action was meant to solve in the first place.