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Why I strike: for women in science

The same thing always happened in math class, starting in high school and continuing through college: I knew that I unless I went to the board and solved a complex problem off the top of my head, I would spend weeks fending off boys who wanted to “tutor” me. They came unsolicited, most frequently in the first week, and I knew why: I was a girl, therefore I was not good at math, therefore they would help me. (“You should be flattered,” a friend told me once. “Maybe they think you’re cute and they’re shy.” Why would I be flattered by a suitor who implied I was an idiot, I wondered.) So it was crucial to publicly solve a difficult problem immediately — otherwise I would not be left alone to work.

I have often wondered what it would be like to walk into a math class and not have to prove I belong there. Proving myself was tiring, and my male classmates didn’t have to do it. They already belonged; only my membership was in question. Eventually I left math, when I got sick of proving myself. There’s a lot of talk about the leaky STEM — science, technology, engineering, and math — pipeline for women; I am one of the drips, a woman who left.

In every STEM subject, women are underrepresented, except at the lower levels, when we’re present in great numbers. Half of the bachelor’s degrees in math are women, as are half the PhDs in life science and pharmacy, according to Science. Women are half, or more than half, of the medical school graduates, dental school enrollees, and doctor of pharmacy recipients. Nine of 10 veterinary medicine graduates are women. Mysteriously, however, we don’t seem to make it to the top levels of these fields.

To understand why that is, it’s helpful to consider the second shift — the work women do when we are done at work. These burdens pile higher when children enter the picture; men pick up an additional 12.5 hours of paid work, childcare, and housework, but women’s work hours increase 21 hours a week, studies have found. Mothers spent twice the time per day on chores that fathers did. This is in general, before we get to the STEM fields: American women take on additional labor, often at home, that hurts them in the work force.

When we get to STEM, we see an even starker picture. While 28 percent of male scientists endeavor to co-parent, 30 percent are “traditional breadwinners” with an intense workload and a stay-at-home wife; another 22 percent are “neo-traditional dual earners” whose careers are more important than their wives’, according to a study of men in US biology and physics departments. This jibes with other studies finding that childless women tend to be about as successful as male peers — because they aren’t doing the extra, unpaid labor of raising the next generation.

And these studies don’t take into account single parents, who are usually women. Even Sheryl Sandberg, purveyor of the “lean in” philosophy that women must simply work harder for recognition, discovered how hard it is to be a woman in tech when her husband abruptly died, leaving her a single mother. “Some people felt that I did not spend enough time writing about the difficulties women face when they have an unsupportive partner, or no partner at all,” she said in a Facebook post. “They were right.”

The idea that people in a STEM field should be single-mindedly focused on their careers runs headlong into the demands of childcare, to women’s detriment. Subsidized childcare would likely help alleviate some of the burden, but that isn’t all women in STEM fields face. It doesn’t take into account, for instance, the experience of entering a heavily male career, where men control most of your access to opportunities, or the extra labor of proving you truly belong.

For instance: women are invited to peer-review studies less often than men are, according to a recently published analysis in Nature. Peer review is important, of course, for helping to referee which studies are published; it can also help build connections to others in the field. It’s not just peer review, either — recommendation letters also show a bias against women, with men more likely to get ecstatic praise while women are commended as “highly intelligent” or “very knowledgeable.” Kuheli Dutt, the first author on the paper, told Science that as a result, “women are potentially disadvantaged from the beginning of their careers.” In the geosciences, which is what this study focuses on, women get 40 percent of the graduate degrees, but are somehow less than 10 percent of faculty. Women in STEM fields are paid less, promoted less, and are given fewer opportunities for prestige work. And women in these fields must contend with derogatory comments, to boot.

All of this is aligned against us before we come to one of the most exhausting things in the STEM fields: sexual harassment. Media reports of powerful men abusing their positions are only the tip of the iceberg. About 71 percent of women who experience sexual harassment don’t report it, and neither do bystanders who witness it, according to a survey from women’s magazine Cosmopolitan. A study of field anthropologists found that nearly a quarter of women surveyed had been sexually assaulted. The women who reported abuse said the majority of the aggressors had been senior men — the ones with the power to determine the future in their field. In male-dominated cultures, some men denigrate women to prop up their own status, the Harvard Business Review writes. Women may be motivated to “fit in” with the dominant culture, not merely by failing to report but also by participating in the gendered harassment themselves.

The problem is worse for women who are black and Latina; half of these women working in STEM fields report that they have been mistaken for custodial staff, according to another Harvard Business Review report. These women say they are socially isolated, and are forced to prove their competence over and over — something 77 percent of black women reported.

These experiences extend beyond science itself to science journalism, as well. Though women account for two-thirds of those who attend science journalism school, only a third of science articles are written by women. Male sources are quoted more than three times as often in articles. Female science journalists were more likely to say they had not been taken seriously and that they experienced unwanted physical contact. It is my suspicion that this gender bias in science writing is part of the reason the pervasive problems women encounter in STEM are under-covered and generally not taken seriously; it explains a willingness to tell women who are experiencing sexual harassment to just “suck it up.” It probably also explains an editorial willingness to take seriously senior men who chalk up women’s difficulties to our innate lack of interest in STEM fields (hello, Steven Pinker and Larry Summers). Perhaps women are innately less interested in these fields, but until all of the obstacles placed in our paths are cleared, no one will ever know, and it is insulting for anyone to speculate that we do this to ourselves, when the data are clear: this is done to us. Women, especially women of color, simply aren’t recognized for our crucial roles in the STEM fields, even when we leap past every obstacle thrown in our way.

So today I am on strike. I am on strike because women’s work is underpaid, or unpaid, and never-ending; because everything I have listed above amounts to a massive debt the STEM community owes women, a debt that cannot truly be repaid. I’m striking, also, because I have to provide you with these statistics, because I know you will not believe me if I just tell you about my experiences — no matter how widely shared they are, and no matter how many other women have the same story.

I am on strike because of every boy in every math class who offered to be my tutor.