Friday, August 1, 2014

Girls in STEM: Negative Liberty

The other day, I had a lengthy discussion with my sister about girls in STEM and the "divide" between STEM and the humanities. And I thought that I need to spend more time thinking about these things on my own; come to my own conclusions. Today's post mostly deals with the topic of girls in STEM.

Background for new readers: I am a girl. I intend to major in civil engineering and work in that field, with the end goal of founding an engineering firm that partners with philanthropic/microloaning ventures to bring clean water, education, and opportunity to under-resourced communities. If I can swing it, I'd also like to minor in CS.

Now for the opinions. Argue with me.


I hold a dual position relative to affirmative action goals. On one hand, I am Asian and we're disproportionately abundant in STEM fields. On the other hand, I am a girl and we're disproportionately underrepresented in STEM fields, especially in the upper echelons.

On principle I oppose affirmative action, but I do think that more girls *should* go into STEM. Why do I think this? Because guys aren't fundamentally better than girls at science and math, and shunting out talented women who might want to go into the field hurts everyone. A lot of girls don't even see STEM as an option because they've been taught that "girls can't do math."

Usually then the question becomes, "how can we get more girls into STEM?" But I think, based on my own limited observations and experiences, that a more productive question is "how can we keep fewer girls from leaving STEM?"

Trying to push more girls into STEM strikes me as well-meaning but misguided. It implies that you *should* want to go into STEM. (Notice that this is the second time I've put asterisks around should.) And some girls actually don't want to go into STEM, would not be happy in STEM, should not be pushed into a field that doesn't suit them in the name of affirmative action.

"But I thought you wanted more girls in STEM." Yeah, I do, but the larger reason I want that is because I am a girl and we need more liberty and choice. That's what I want--for girls (and boys) to be able to choose what they want to do with their lives based on their talents and their passions (so long as they do not endanger others).

Pushing girls into STEM, favoring women in STEM, isn't good enough for me. I think I'd be infuriated if I found out that I got something--a job, a promotion--just because I was a woman. Affirmative action is like taking a running who has lead weights tied to their feet and giving them a head start. It doesn't get rid of the real obstacle and now everyone thinks you're cheating.

It's the difference between negative and positive liberty: freedom from versus freedom to. The Ten Amendments versus the Civil Rights Act. Both are important, but negative liberty--the removal of obstructions--comes before empowerment, or else you still have those weights tangling your feet as you try to run. (Negative numbers come before positive numbers, she remarked inconsequentially.)

How do we get rid of those lead weights, then? Social problems go back really, really far. Making the STEM field more accommodating to women won't do much if the broader society keeps girls from even looking.

Painting things pink isn't good enough. The laws of physics were the same for Marie Curie as they were for her husband; why then should a girl play with pink blocks and boy with blue?

Gender shouldn't matter. I am okay with downplaying my feminine side if it'll help me get taken seriously, but that's not a big sacrifice for me since being a girl is "what" not "who" I am. The girls who do identify strongly with their gender shouldn't have to make that sacrifice.

How to keep girls who like STEM from leaving it? The best case scenario is for people to shuck off their cultural conditioning and stop doing a double take whenever a woman succeeds in STEM. That seems unlikely.

Social conditioning matters. Almost all of the people my age I know who want to go into STEM have parents who are in STEM fields. We've grown up able to ask someone with help on our math homework, making it a puzzle rather than a fortress. I didn't start out wanting to go into STEM--I thought I wanted to work in finance all the way until sophomore year--but I gravitated toward it without much angst because it had always been an option.

Anecdote != data, so I don't know how much my conclusions scale, but based on my observations girls will keep STEM in mind if they learn from an early age that math/science/etc. can provide intellectual stimulation and satisfaction, even beauty. If they have the self-confidence to take on advanced classes and demand of themselves that they learn the math instead of letting themselves get left behind in the new material.

This solution generalizes easily, because isn't this how a kid gets into any field? They try it, find out that they're good at it or that it's fun enough to make not being good at it worth the trouble, and keep on being good at it and working hard to learn new things out of pure interest in the subject.

"Doesn't that defeat the purpose of getting more girls into STEM? What if girls really don't want to go into STEM?" BS. The social barriers exist, even if they are becoming more permeable. The Girl Scouts researched it, and girls as a group start losing interest in STEM in middle school.

More girls could go into STEM than do. I will not get to the argument about the relative value of STEM v. the humanities this week (spoiler alert: I'm not a supremacist), but surely it is a loss if a bright girl who could be writing programs or designing machines or setting up experiments has it decided for her that those fields are closed because of her gender.

No one pushed me into STEM. But no one pushed me out, either. The second sentence is more unusual, and that is where I think we'll get the greatest return on investment.


  1. I'm totally with you. As a girl devoted to science i sure hope that any girl who thought the STEM field was something they wanted to pursue should get a real chance to do so with no reservations. But maybe this kind of reality will be something of the (hopefully not so distant) future, because i feel girls nowadays still don't feel 100% at ease making that choice. Girls are brought up to believe that some things are better left to the boys, so unless they show a real talent for them no one will encourage them. And isn't that a pity? My own father opposed the idea of me going to medical school because 'a doctor's life is no life for a woman, what about kids?'. And maybe he was right, maybe he wasn't. But what would my life be without science? What kind of life would i lead if i weren't given the opportunity to use my brain? I would be bored out of my mind and discontented and regretting not having pursued my dreams, and that would surely make for a crappy mommy :)
    I'm really happy there's a fellow science woman on the making, keep it up girl!

    1. Yes! A lot of girls don't actively get told they're not fit for science; they just never even entertain the idea that they could do it. My sister wants to be a doctor and I want to be an engineer and our parents have definitely said similar things to us! "It's too hard for a woman!" I'm sure they mean well but statements like that just reflect the cultural assumption that a girl can't handle a career in STEM.

      I don't want to imply that girls who go into other fields *aren't* fulfilled (and I know that's not what you're saying, either), just that for those of us who do want to do something in science, it may be hard but the thought of not going after that dream is even worse.