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The Importance of Busting Gender, Sex Stereotypes in STEM

The Importance of Busting Gender, Sex Stereotypes in STEM

My son’s favourite cartoon show is Dexter’s Laboratory. It is about a bespectacled boy ‘genius’ working in his secret laboratory in his bedroom. Dee Dee, his elder sister, is always seen dim-wittedly playing with or wrecking Dexter’s contraptions. An exasperated Dexter tries to explain his experiments to Dee Dee, as if she is ignorant and unfamiliar with the world of science and technology. I have often wondered about the gender stereotypes that this cartoon has portrayed.

Several colleagues and I have encountered such stereotypes time and again in our workplaces. I used to work in a large laboratory in a national lab, where I shared benches and sitting space with a number of male colleagues and several young research students. At any time, 20% of the lab’s population was female. Whenever a product specialist from an instrument company or someone to talk about advanced experimental techniques would visit the lab, he would ignore the women and approach our male colleagues or students. If there were no other people in the lab except the women, he would leave his visiting cards at the lab’s entrance – as if we were invisible to him.

When these product specialists gave a sales talk or demonstrated their product or instrument, they would mostly address our male colleagues, and only reluctantly answer our questions. Their tone always suggested that they believed we wouldn’t understand the jargon and that we would need to have things explained in plain language.

When we mentioned this to our male colleagues, they teased us about being too sensitive and finicky about what they called a “non-issue”. We compared notes with our peers in other labs across several institutes, and found that it was the same story everywhere.

I had always known that our society is highly gendered and the problems that we were talking about were invisible to our male colleagues, because such unconscious biases permeate our homes, classrooms and workplaces – and are, in all, too deeply embedded. And I know that some of my younger colleagues will tell me such things are rare these days. However, even if they happen less often, they irk me.

Some biases are so deep-seated that we don’t even think of them as biases. One of my male colleagues, while criticising a research student for a badly designed experiment, kept saying that ‘even a granny with her eyes closed would have been able to do a better job’. In similar vein, consider the quote attributed apocryphally to Albert Einstein, that “you don’t really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.” Or Ernst Rutherford’s oft-repeated statement that “it should be possible to explain the laws of physics to a barmaid”. These are only a few examples of the subtle ways in which sexism pervades science, often in a way that is hard to recognise and weed out. I don’t think we were ever told to explain science to our fathers or grandfathers.

I have wondered if these are instances of ‘neurosexism’ – a term often used to discriminate against someone because of their sex, arising out of the myth that women’s brains are on average lighter than those of men.

With last week’s announcements of the Noble Prize winners, sex and gender issues in science were once again in focus. In the press and on social media, commentators have analysed from different angles as to how few women have won these prizes (in the sciences). Some went so far as to claim that women lacked motivation while even others said, derisively, that women scientists didn’t network as well as their male counterparts did. And some said women just didn’t have it in them to work tirelessly, with passion, and that many quit to concentrate on their families. Even other crusaders then took it upon themselves to talk about those ‘brilliant’ women scientists who never got the recognition they deserved in their lifetimes, and so those had been recognised were lucky!

We don’t need to make girls and women feel they have to conform vis-à-vis STEM, or make them think that they need to do something extra to be recognised as being the intellectual equals of men. STEM is fundamentally about creativity, imagination, about changing the world for the better; it in fact offers a wealth of opportunities – both in terms going forward as well as with getting into STEM itself. But sex and gender stereotypes and discrimination prejudice the opportunities there are to contribute to society with STEM. So if STEM is to have positive implications for our society, we must bust these stereotypes.

Aruna Dhathathreyan is a professor at the Academy of Scientific and Innovative Research, scientist (emeritus-SERB) at the CSIR Central Leather Research Institute, Chennai.

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