As we enter Women’s History Month, we return to our regular conversation about sexism in higher education, focusing on the narratives around women’s ability, sexism in the classroom, workplace, and beyond, and how we can create a more inclusive space for all women.
Reflect: What kinds of narratives target women’s ability?
Women are often forced into an awkward position when it comes to being successful. Women who are seen as competent are also seen as less warm, whereas women who are seen as warm/social are considered less competent.1,2 Additionally, women are generally perceived to be less competent in skills that are considered “masculine,” shaping expectations around women’s success in STEM from a very early age.3,4 These competing narratives put women in tricky positions as they must constantly prove that they are capable of being successful while also juggling other’s social perceptions of them. What kinds of effect might these competing narratives have on a woman’s mental state? How could these narratives prevent women from succeeding in STEM?
Learn: Fighting Sexism in Higher Education
Sexism exists in higher education in all disciplines, although the underepresentation of women in STEM presents a specific issue for those fields. When women enter STEM in undergrad, they report high levels of ambivalent and hostile sexism.5 Even when outperforming peers, women STEM students are perceived and treated by them as less capable.6 These experiences negatively affect women’s science identity,7 creating burnout and sense of belonging issues.8 Black women and other women of color experience even further isolation, and attrition as a result of the intersections of racism and sexism.9,10,11 These students are often forced to develop their own counterspaces as a rare haven away from these climates.12 At the faculty and professional level, women often feel caught in a “masculinity contest” that excludes them.13 Furthermore, in STEM departments, men chairs commonly lack an understanding of what policies support women faculty needs.14 As such, women faculty are less satisfied with their work and feel tenure expectations are less clear.15 Beside mental health and other social issues, women struggle to remain in STEM under these biased, exclusionary conditions, leaving earlier and in higher numbers than men.16,17,18 It may be tempting to think that IU is different/better than the institutions surveyed in the citations above, however, reports from the COACHE climate survey demonstrate definitively that these phenomena affect women at IU too.
- Discussion questions: Here are some questions to consider with peers or colleagues in creating a more inclusive environment for women. Does the language you use to describe the ability of people differ by gender? How can we encourage more community-building and social support for women in underrepresented fields? Where can we be better about highlighting the work and success of women? How can we further develop our ability to interrupt sexist bias that undermines women in STEM??
- Highlight women’s ability: One of the most fundamental ways to better the culture of STEM for women is to highlight women’s ability. This can be both direct and indirect. In addition to being intentional about congratulating women about their accomplishments, actively seek ways to nominate women for promotions and awards (especially general awards)! An indirect way to highlight women’s ability is by sharing the work of women in all parts of your life, inviting women to collaborate on projects and panels, and generally incorporating more women representation in everything you do. In addition to actively engaging the thoughts and opinions of women on a regular basis, we must call out ways that men get prioritized to speak (e.g., academic “manels”19) and challenge men who are not mindful of how they take up space.20
- Creating a positive culture: There is an ideological element of STEM that persists in excluding women, creating toxic, gender-stereotypical, competitive spaces. To counteract this ideology, we need to change the culture of STEM. This first begins with centering communal values.21 Instead of communicating competition and isolation between students/colleagues, consider ways you can encourage collaboration and community. This can begin with support networks created through programs like living learning communities22 and/or peer mentors.23 However, changing the values of an office, department, and/or classroom isn’t enough. We must have daily conversations about the outcomes of what we say and do as an individual and as a group.
Weekly Resource Recommendations
- Book:What Works: Gender Equity by Design - Iris Bohnet details interventions that can be used in the office, classroom, and beyond to promote gender equity on a structural level.
- Video: The Hidden Women of STEM – Alexis Scott discusses the history of women in STEM and how STEM environments make women feel invisible, undervalued, and outright unwelcome..
- Article: Women in STEM Need More than a Law – This article takes a dive into the role that Title IX has played in advancing women in STEM as well as where we must continue pushing for equity..
- Podcast: #VanguardSTEM Show – This series features numerous guests who speak to the experiences and needs of Women of Color in STEM.
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