The Uphill Battle for Representation in STEM
When I was a child, my favorite movie by far was Mulan. It was partly the music, somewhat my love for Mushu the dragon, and mostly that Mulan was Chinese. For the first time that I could remember, I saw someone who looked like me on screen, characters who looked like my family, people who went to the same festivals that we did. For the first time, I saw someone who could be me.
Representation at its core is a systemic problem. Centuries of discrimination have forced out and erased the accomplishments of anyone who is not a white male. Gender and racial biases remain entrenched in media, politics, and STEM fields. Its continual presence is not only wrong on an inclusionary level, but is a detriment to the institution of science.
The evidence for STEM disparity is staggering. A study of fourth graders found that 66 percent of girls and 68 percent of boys liked science, well within a margin of error; by eighth grade, boys are twice as interested in STEM careers. Less than 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees in computer science are awarded to women. Between the years of 1973 – 2012, only 66 black women were awarded physics PhDs, while 22,000 were awarded to white men. Not until 2014 did Maryam Mirzakhani, an Iranian professor at Stanford University, become the first woman to win the Fields Medal, often regarded as the Nobel Prize of Mathematics. Gender and racial biases are producing concerning effects at every level.
The historic lack of diversity in the sciences continues to self-propagate; when the field of science is dominated by a single demographic, that becomes a norm. When people don’t fit into that mold, they are thought of as lesser. In a study asking second graders to draw a scientist, both male and female students overwhelmingly drew a white male in a lab coat; any representation of female scientists looked unhappy. This stereotype continues to permeate and creates implicit bias. A study by the University of Washington Department of Biology published in 2016 found that for a female student to receive a certain level of accolades from her peers, she will have an average A grade, while a male student to reach that same level of accolades will have an average B grade in the same course.
The bias among peers, however subtle it may be, echoes in the self-doubt that it creates. This becomes the prevalence of imposter syndrome in underrepresented communities. The lurking fear in the pit of your stomach that you don’t belong, that you were never meant to be there. When no one looks like you, those doubts become even louder. It manifests itself in the woman who starts her question with, “Sorry, this might be stupid…” and the man who begins with, “Well, actually…”
Science even has an incentive to increase its diversity: a lack of representation simply makes for bad science. Sally Ride, the first female astronaut, was asked by male NASA engineers if 100 tampons would be enough for a week-long mission because there were no women on their team to say otherwise. Women are significantly more likely than men to experience adverse drug effects because many clinical trials don’t adequately test female participants. By forcing out other perspectives, other ideas and solutions are ignored; homogenous groups stunt creativity and progress. Without diversity, science is inherently flawed.
Though there are still strides to be made, it’s important to remember that we are standing on the shoulders of giants. Marie Curie was the first person ever to win two Nobel Prize awards in different fields. Chien Shiung Wu was an integral part of the Manhattan Project, disproving the conservation of parity. The experiments of Rosalind Franklin paved the way for the discovery of DNA’s double helical structure.
Do not forget how far we’ve come, but don’t allow progress to make us complicit. An object in motion will remain in motion until acted upon by an external force; disparity will continue until we act with a great enough force to change it.