Three months ago, Google fired software engineer James Damore after he released “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” a 10-page memo that criticized the company’s diversity initiatives aimed at hiring more minorities. In his screed, Damore attributes the gender gap in STEM jobs not to sexism, but to fundamental psychological differences between the two sexes. He points out that because they are “more prone to anxiety,” women cannot handle the high-stress environment in a company like Google. Damore even goes as far as to argue that men are being discriminated against by Google’s inclusivity policies, claiming that “discrimination to reach equal representation is unfair, divisive, and bad for business.”
Damore’s judgments are bold, to say the least — but it is particularly concerning to think that he may not be alone in his beliefs. The ideas presented in his rant are representative of the common, yet toxic mindset in places like Silicon Valley: Men are simply more qualified to handle the tough jobs in the STEM field.
And it is even more concerning that on the surface, these men might just be correct. In colleges, men largely outnumber women in certain science and technology majors. According to a study by the National Student Clearinghouse, undergraduate women received just 18 percent of computer science degrees and 19 percent of engineering degrees.
Aside from Damore’s claims that are primarily based on factless stereotypes, there is no real support for the idea that one gender is smarter than the other in the scope of science and mathematics. The only evidence of a gap between the sexes comes from ongoing social constructs rooted in patriarchal notions of what a working man and a working woman should look like; men are doctors and engineers, and women are nurses and teachers. Men outnumber women in the STEM field not because they are more intelligent, but because they are provided more opportunities.
A great deal of this discrepancy can be seen in professional settings: because the workforce is dominated by men, who may hire more of their own gender. Such internal biases create a cycle that can unfairly impact women in the long run, which is why companies like Google implement diversity initiatives.
But often, that hostile environment is not just created by a lack of job opportunities. Turning the focus to college campuses, a 2016 report by The Atlantic highlights that the astonishing amount of sexual harassment lawsuits at UCLA, UC Berkeley and the University of Chicago can be traced to the fact that the women who filed them were dependent on good recommendations from their professors for future careers in STEM. The vast majority of faculty and leadership holes at these campuses are composed of men, and as a result, there exists a disproportionate power dynamic putting women at greater risk of being taken advantage of, and lacking the connections and resources to fight back. Echoing the article’s title, many women are literally being “harassed out of science.”
That is why college campuses are so crucial when considering how to close the gender gap in STEM. Universities can start examining their practices in hiring professors, because a higher amount of female instructors may contribute to a safer learning environment that is conducive to fostering the growth of all students. Although USA Today recently ranked USC third in STEM education for women, the University is not immune to gender imbalance: Only one third of STEM department faculties are female.
The challenges faced by women of racial and ethnic minorities or the LGBTQ community are often even greater. Because the STEM field’s culture is dominated by straight, white men, many marginalized groups are discouraged from seeking futures in STEM. For instance, as stated by U.S. News & World Report, whereas whites and Asians hold positions in 87 percent of the engineering workforce, African Americans and Latinx people comprise just 12 percent. In addition, The New York Times reported that out of 1,400 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer STEM professionals surveyed, a striking 43 percent reported that they were “closeted” — indicating a general lack of acceptance in the field.
That said, STEM subjects are difficult. The argument that employers should prioritize quality of work is a perfectly sound one; especially when it comes to technological advancements, what one has to offer is more important than their status as a minority figure. Fairness does not mean complete equality. It means equal opportunity, which, as mentioned before, is not easy to come by.
If people truly want to see more minorities successfully working STEM jobs, university action is not enough; stereotypes must be broken early on. Because an interest in the sciences is generally developed before college, it would be effective to enhance STEM education for adolescents by implementing a more inclusive curriculum. Organizations like Girls Who Code are already making great strides in this area, and perhaps they will pave the way for the further representation of marginalized groups.
It’s ironic that an industry as innovative as STEM can encourage such regressive mindsets among its workers. While it is true that employers need to give minorities the positions they deserve, we make progress when we rid ourselves of the notion that the STEM professional is a white man in a lab coat. Science isn’t for everyone right now — but it can be.