She’s not that into you: Women in STEM

I attended a Machine Learning Symposium in Chicago recently, and I had a rather difficult experience with the roommate that I had been assigned there. Firstly, of the 40 odd posters that were presented, I think only two were presented by female “researchers”. Me and my roommate. And so the odds of me landing up with her, were actually quite high. Which is disheartening at multiple levels. The female turn out at such events always seem to be low. And it didn’t help that my roommate seemed cuckoo from the get go.

She was: a 30-something mom of two without an engineering background, who probably read some news article and thought it would be cool to be a part of the Deep Learning (a sub-field in Machine Learning) brigade. And a mid-westerner. Oh also, in hindsight, very likely to have been high the entire time.

Her addictions and erratic behavior aside, she also seemed quite insistent on convincing me to use my double-minority status in STEM to an advantage. She also seemed to have trouble recollecting any other minorities apart from “Latinos”, which means I’m actually a minority among minorities. So basically I’m a “woman”  “of color” pursuing a PhD and apparently that’s rare. Actually I won’t even question the validity of that claim; it is true. I don’t really see a lot of women researchers in engineering, forget the race part.

But to use that as a my trump card never really occurred to me, and here’s why. I do happen to be a minority, but I really don’t think I’ve faced any blatant discrimination myself! I personally don’t think I’ve faced any repression; people in positions of authority at least haven’t treated me any differently. And even though there have been several times that I have felt that I haven’t been taken that seriously by my male counterparts, that could have been due to multiple reasons. And I have still insisted on standing firm on my point anyway and got things done. Perhaps there’s still an inherent discrimination that I’ve just turned a blind eye to, or got to used to; I’m not so sure.

Which makes this situation rather difficult to understand. Are women being discouraged from pursuing certain fields? I know I haven’t been. So why is it that we see such few women in mathematically challenging fields? From a biological standpoint, there is no significant difference between men and women, intellectually. Then again, my upbringing has been highly biased. I grew up in a highly academic environment which largely dictated my inclinations towards academia.

In a more generic environment, I would perhaps have been more influenced by where a majority of my peers were heading toward, career-wise. And that would likely have not been in academia.

I suppose a number of obvious challenges exist. My dad actually stated to me that the current generation of young women try very hard to follow the footsteps of men. Instead, they should be paving their own identities.

But the flaw in this premise is, men just “got there” first. At a primary level, women need to catch up. I don’t quite understand why there needs to be a stark distinction between male and female careers, where differences in anatomy don’t play a part. Sure, if a job is physically laborious, it might be a better call to employ a man. Sure, if the job constitutes caretaking, employ a woman. But there are so many fields that employ skills which both genders are equally good at. And I don’t see the requirement for careers to take distinct paths.

It’s hard for me to have a non-biased opinion on this matter. The fact is that I have very few women that I can even discuss these issues with and tally view points. So, I’m not sure if most of what I’m saying makes sense or not, but it definitely is an issue and someone needs to address it.

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