Growing up, I increasingly saw my good grades as a trap locking me into a single career: STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). It felt like a dystopian YA novel, and my high school report card was The Choosing. A’s in math and science? Here are your jeans and sweatshirt.
Well-meaning people lied to me. They said computer science was a great work-from-home career if I wanted children (when in fact a majority of women quit STEM because the culture of poor work-life balance makes it too difficult to raise a family), that STEM careers are secure (actually the industry has frequent layoffs and is very competitive), and more.
The Girls in STEM culture guilted me. The statistics on girls who “stop liking math” and women who quit STEM were cited to me as tragedies (even though changing careers is increasingly normal). I was unsure of what I wanted, scared of unemployment, and vulnerable.
I suffered four miserable years of a bachelor’s degree in computer science and another year in a big STEM corporation before I found the courage to quit. Now I wake up every day grateful that I got out.
Unfortunately, the impact of those years will not disappear. By quitting STEM, I became another statistic and another bad example that women who do truly love STEM have to live down. When the Girls in STEM culture pressures girls into careers they don’t want, they make it more difficult for women who want to pursue STEM to succeed.
Even more importantly, recruiting girls leaves less time to solve serious problems in the industry. Sexual harassment remains common. Gender bias causes managers to consider women less qualified for STEM jobs, contributing to the “glass ceiling” that prevents women from advancing. Statistics Canada reported that men with STEM degrees have lower unemployment and higher wages than men in other fields, but there is no significant difference between women in or out of STEM.
Research has found that increased parental leave results in more women staying in the field, but women who take parental leave are seen as less committed, face pressure to work more, and feel penalized. Social isolation and a workaholic culture all contribute to keeping the number of women in STEM low.
Meanwhile, our workforce needs more engineers and gender diversity increases companies’ success. Girls and women interested in STEM need support, but the Girls in STEM culture isn’t helping.
Some try to fix these problems by pressuring girls into STEM by any means. Lying, for example, is so accepted that one author begins an article by saying outright that she’s going to lie to a bunch of Girl Scouts that they can do anything in STEM, even though she knows women face career-stunting obstacles in the field.
Added to the lies is the guilt: even as adults, many women report feeling that they represent all women and are failing their gender if they change careers. The people running Girls in STEM events are well-intentioned, but they could support girls who love engineering without guilt tripping or deceiving girls who don’t.
Some might argue that it doesn’t matter that some girls feel coerced if the overall result is more women in STEM. But evangelizing STEM won’t increase the percentage of women because the lack of women in STEM isn’t a pipeline problem. The percentage of women is low because too many leave, not because too few enter. Unlike me, most of these women truly do want STEM careers but quit for reasons ranging from discrimination to maternity leave policy.
Pouring more girls into this broken system is as useless as pouring water into a leaky bucket. Increased numbers of women could solve some of the problems, but that critical mass can’t be reached if women keep quitting at this rate.
The Girls in STEM movement should focus on fixing the issues that make women quit — by changing workplace culture and policies and by training and supporting women already in the field — instead of recruiting more girls.
It’s unfair to encourage girls to enter a field many grown women find unbearable.
In this situation, the best thing for girls is also the best thing for STEM. But even if it wasn’t, our moral obligation to girls is clear. It is just as wrong to tell girls to do STEM because they were born with a certain kind of brain as it would be to tell them to have babies because they were born with ovaries. Feminists should encourage girls to pursue goals based on their dreams, not their abilities.
by Cleoniki Kesidis, recently left a career in computer science to pursue a Master’s degree in another field. She lives in Ottawa.