September 18, 2015

Girl Code and Heteronormativity in STEM Fields

TigonzalesBy Teresa Irene Gonzales

I was recently listening to an episode of The TakeAway on NPR; the host was interviewing Shirin Lao-Raz Salemnia on her commitment to fostering an interest in coding among young girls. This got me thinking about my own experiences as a young, female computer technician during my late teens and early twenties.

I began working in information technology when I was 19. I didn’t know many women who were also interested in mainframes, computer networking, hardware technologies, et cetera. In fact, I was both the youngest person and the only woman in my computer engineering courses, and at both of my tech-related jobs. I didn’t really know how to process the explicitly gendered and sexist, and implicitly racist comments and treatment that I received (I once had a VP pat me on the head and say he’d call one of the guys to help him out). At the time, social networking was in its infancy and I didn’t know how to connect with others who had similar interests and/or challenges as me.  

Sixteen years later, while many of the challenges are the same, at least folks can more easily connect to each other via Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms.

You may have heard of the recent hashtag phenomena, #looklikeanengineer and #distractinglysexy; both emerged as responses to issues of gender, sex, and racial discrimination and stereotypes within the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).

Women make up 50.8% of U.S. population, yet are underrepresented in a variety of STEM fields. This discrepancy starts early, as many girls begin to veer away from STEM disciplines during high-school. For girls of color and/or from low-income backgrounds, this starts even earlier.

According to the National Girls Collaborative Project, during their K-12 education, girls take high-level math and science courses at the same rate as boys. Disparities in STEM fields during K-12 are centered on class and race. This means that although in general girls performed at similar levels as boys across the board, students from low-income and/or Black, Latin@, or Native American backgrounds scored lower in STEM fields.

Within higher education, however, gender disparities begin to emerge at a higher rate – particularly for women of color. Beginning at the undergraduate level, these disparities occur in specific STEM fields. For the biological sciences, women earn about half of the baccalaureate degrees awarded. However, in areas like “computer sciences (18.2%), engineering (19.2%), physics (19.1%), and mathematics and statistics (43.1%)” women are earning in some cases less than 1 in 5 of the degrees awarded in these fields.

When we look at the intersection of race and gender, these numbers drop significantly. A study by the National Science Foundation (NSF) found that in 2012 of the STEM degrees awarded, women of color earned 11.2% at the baccalaureate level, 8.2% at the master’s level, and 4.1% at the doctoral level.

In terms of the workforce, there are vast disparities in representation of women in both “engineering (13%) and computer and mathematical sciences (25%).”  Again, these numbers drop significantly for women of color, who represent less than “1 in 10 employed engineers and scientists.”

For all science and engineering occupations, more than half of all workers are non-Latin@ white.

While the numbers are stark for women and girls of color, what does this mean for those who identify as LGBTQA or, in other ways, do not identify as white, cisgender male, and heterosexual?

Manil Suri, professor of mathematics and  Asian studies, recently wrote a Why is Science so Straight? for the New York Times. The opinion piece highlights the invisibility of queer-identified colleagues within STEM fields. Heteronormativity operates as the default meta-narrative whereby people who do not fit into a specific set of identities are expected to hide certain aspects of themselves, and are required to laugh off or ignore explicit and implicit, insensitive, sexist, and racist comments.

In August, Isis Anchalee, an engineer at OneLogin in San Francisco, wrote an online essay detailing her frustrations with the sexism she’s experienced as a female engineer – this includes, drawing from Fat Joe’s song “Make it Rain,” having dollar bills thrown at her by a male colleague and the backlash she received as a result of appearing in an ad campaign for her employer. Many of the comments on the ad focused on Anchalee’s looks, her smile, and the implausibility that she was a “real” engineer. As a result of her experiences, Anchalee started the #looklikeanengineer hashtag.

In a similar vein, at a conference hosted by female scientists in South Korea, Nobel Prize winner Sir Tim Hunt gave a speech where he stated:

Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab; you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and – when you criticize them – they cry.

As a result of these comments, female scientists globally began posting images of themselves in their respective labs with the hashtag #distractinglysexy.

Subsequent articles suggested that Sir Tim Hunt was speaking in jest, and, according to an article in the Telegraph, Hunt later on in the speech went on to praise female scientists. Yet, comments such as the above highlight the added strain that women and those who do not identify as cis-gendered male experience within STEM fields. As Anchalee astutely notes in her essay:

 There is a significant lack of empathy and insight towards recognizing that [men’s] "playful/harmless" behavior is responsible for making others inappropriately uncomfortable. This industry’s culture fosters an unconscious lack of sensitivity towards those who do not fit a certain mold.

As we know, words have meaning and impact. According to philosopher Judith Butler, difference, no matter what it is, is marked and formed by words, by language, and by the meaning that we ascribe to words. Naming something both sets a boundary and inculcates a norm. This process is reified through action.

Whether playfully said/done or not, in throwing money at a woman (no matter the setting), in saying things like the “trouble with girls,” and in demanding a culture of heteronormativity within STEM fields, these actions (that may be performed by both/either men and women), denigrate the humanity of their female, non-white, non-heteronormative, and/or non-gender conforming colleagues and position them as consistently other. These actions reflect deep seated inequities within society (race, gender, sexuality) – yet, the perpetrators hide their acquiescence to, and support of, that inequity behind a mantle of “play” “joking” or “irony.”

As a response to these issues within STEM fields several organizations have emerged , including oStem, a “national society dedicated to educating and fostering leadership for LGBTQA communities in the STEM fields,” Playwerks, and  WhizGirls Academy, two Southern California organizations that train young girls from low-income backgrounds coding, entrepreneurial, and healthy-living skills, and Youth-Led Tech, a Chicago-focused technology mentoring program.

What else do you think might create more opportunity for diversity in STEM fields?


Many people, especially those who are in the majority categories of the IT workforce (White and Asian men), throw up their hands and say, "This a pipeline issue! Diverse workers aren’t coming through the system." In my opinion this is code for, “I do not have to be part of the solution.”

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