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Forcing women into STEM won’t erase sexism

When I thought we were past bringing down other women bossing it in a man-led dynasty, another woman has to turn around and surrender to her internalised misogyny (or just her downright sexism). In case you’ve missed this juicy example of female bashing, Katharine Birbalsingh has said that fewer girls chose physics because “physics isn’t something that girls tend to fancy. They don’t want to do it; they don’t like it”. This nugget of misinformation was broadcast when addressing the science and technology committee inquiry on diversity and inclusion in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths).

I wish I had the brainpower to work out complicated equations involving velocity or memorising the rate of refraction. Some people don’t feel daunted by the prospect of formulae and integers but at the same time, just don’t find enough joy in pursuing it as a career. But it doesn’t exactly help when women are dissuaded from pursuing predominantly ‘male-led’ career paths such as STEM.

Birbalsingh can’t claim that girls simply ‘don’t want to’ do physics when in the whole of this career sector there is a known lack of gender inclusivity. Not every woman wants to work in the arts or ‘soft’ sciences. We need to stop gendering jobs that don’t require being gendered. In doing so, it makes it disproportionately difficult for women when they do follow those careers and find themselves questioned and fobbed off every step of the way. Especially for those facing multiple intersections of oppression (black, disabled, working-class etc). Maths is not hard for women; it’s the industry that does not allow them the same step-up that their white, male counterparts have handed to them on a silver platter. 

To suggest that it is too complicated for women is nothing short of insulting. And as a headteacher, Birbalsingh should have more sense than to degrade women and insinuate that the big numbers and fancy words make women’s heads hurt. Perhaps instead, something about understanding the importance of engaging young girls in schools to pursue their interests and passions, despite what society tells them?

Maybe Birbalsingh is too insecure to admit that she’s scared by the prospect of the 4th dimension or can’t work out the speed of light (2.998 x 108 m/s, by the way), but that doesn’t mean that she should be projecting this harmful stereotype onto other women. Ideas like that, especially when perpetuated by a woman, reinforce ideals that suggest women are incapable of such intelligence because our teeny, tiny brains simply can’t comprehend it.

I have always loved subjects that give me information and help explain the universe. Like many, I decided to study maths for my A-Levels (APs for those in the US). I was put in classes of predominantly guys and often felt overlooked by my teachers. At the end of my first year, I faced the end of year review with my male teacher where I voiced my struggles. When asked if I wanted to pursue the subject for the 2nd year, I said no, as I was focusing my studies more on science and English. Upon hearing this, my teacher callously replied: “I think that’s probably best”. I was astounded, and that memory has stuck with me since. 

That’s not to say that my experience is universal, but I do feel there is a certain pressure on women who do well in STEM to be self-sufficient. If not, then as Birbalsingh so eloquently put it, maths is seen as something we don’t want to do because we “don’t like it”. I adored studying science and continue to be fascinated by physics in particular. . For many women, physics is a hobby; light reading we do in-between following our passions.

Why is it so much easier for people to believe that women find science and maths ‘too hard’; than to consider their exclusion from these subjects because of the outdated notion that they are not capable of being as astute? Our IWD (International Women’s Day) interview with Mayim Bialik is the perfect example. An extraordinary neuroscientist (on-screen and off-screen) with the PhD to prove it, but many don’t believe that she is a scientist in real life. Most search results describe her as an actress; without mentioning her multiple additions to the scientific community alongside her acting career.

It’s painted as if a woman’s interest in science is as superficial and temporary as an Instagram photo opportunity. You have to hold those beakers up to the light to make the pretty liquid shine, rather than a genuine pursuit of knowledge and understanding of the universe. 

So, rather than blaming women for not building upon careers in STEM, maybe we should address the root causes of their lack of inclusion, and how society insists on treating women in STEM when they do pursue these industries.

Let’s stop shaming women into thinking they’re not intelligent enough for STEM and start teaching people to be less ignorant. 

BEFORE YOU GO...Have you read: Women’s charity founder: “Return of Taliban will leave women vulnerable to traffickers"
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